The opinion of an author, character, or sometimes both, can be expressed in the tone of a written piece. It’s a little tricky because sometimes readers might interpret a character’s opinion as reflective of the author. If the character happens to be rather unlikeable, this can have unfortunate consequences. If this happens, about all the writer can do is shrug and move on, secure in the knowledge of his own integrity and the realization that no matter what is written, someone, somewhere will take exception to it.  

In speaking, we use our tone of voice often combined with facial expressions to convey more than just the words. Consider the word ‘really’ spoken with the accent of the first syllable, a widening of the eyes and a bit of smile to convey appreciation and possibly excitement over something unexpected. Alternatively the same word spoken flatly with little or no expression suggests disinterest and spoken in a sort of drawl with an arched eyebrow or possibly hurriedly along with a small increase in volume and pitch conveys mild to considerable skepticism.

Similar techniques can be used in writing. Words like ‘shouted’, ‘bellowed’, and ‘roared’ produce the impression of anger to the point of rage in a character. We might expect some violent action to follow.

Making use of tone is one method by which authors can emphasize showing over telling. I’m not quite as fanatical as some, but I think it improves a work to have more feelings and ideas demonstrated then merely noted. For example I would prefer He looked at me like someone just realizing he’d stepped in something unpleasant over He looked at me with contempt. Both convey the same idea but the former is a little more dramatic.

Tone can be conveyed in a number of ways. A careful choice of words is one. A second is sentence structure. Making use of devices such as similes and metaphors helps and even punctuation may assist. Although exclamation marks are frowned upon by some, and certainly overused on occasion, they can make a point. ‘Stop!’ he commanded very concisely expresses the determination of the speaker. 

Vocabulary and sentence structure can provide alterations in tone. For example run-on sentences are frowned upon as any English teacher will tell you, but their use can slow the pace and convey a feeling of detachment. Although not common in modern literature, this technique was quite common in the past. You can open a book by just about any classical author at almost any page and paragraph and observe how it’s used.


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The following is an example from Jane Eyre: In the clear embers I was tracing a view, not unlike a picture I remembered to have seen of the castle of Heidelberg, on the Rhine, when Mrs. Fairfax came in, breaking up by her entrance the fiery mosaic I had been piercing together, and scattering too some heavy unwelcome thoughts that were beginning to throng on my solitude.

Here the tone is one of reflection and some annoyance at its disruption. It could have been written as three or possibly four sentences, but by running things together the author not only emulates the feelings of her character but adds a sense of gentility to the work. The latter is quite common among nineteenth century literary works.

Tone can assist in conveying many emotions and a large number of closely related ideas. Feelings of joy, regret and envy are a few of these. In addition inspiration, anticipation, derision and irony, although not exactly emotions, can be conveyed quite readily by tone.

For example: ‘Well,’ he said pressing his fingertips together and arching one eyebrow, ‘it seems you’ve accomplished your grand work, however abstruse and insignificant it may be.’ This illustrates a combination of derision and irony in which the speaker places himself on a plane well above the second character. It is quick, cutting, and to the point.

Short, clipped, sentences are useful for conveying an aggressive tone. ‘I don’t care what happened. Shove off!’ he shouted. By extending the length of the sentence and softening the words, the same idea can be expressed in a tone which is still assertive bur far less direct and aggressive. ‘Well it’s certainly unfortunate and I can see it’s well out of your control; but regardless of the circumstances, I can’t satisfy your request.’ It’s possible to soften it still further. ‘I understand your misfortune, but I’m afraid it will be necessary for you to start again and make the necessary corrections before I can do what you wish.’ Here the tone is not only non-aggressive but helpful as well.

Since both characters and authors always have some sort of opinion on what is transpiring in a story, tone is the means for conveying it. All literature uses tone, the trick is to convey to the reader those attitudes you want conveyed so as to prevent misunderstanding and possible confusion.



This guest post was contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published fifteen books on