Tone:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Tone. What the story sounds like; analogous to tone of voice in ordinary conversation, which often does more to convey the mood of the speaker than does the actual content of the speech.” Madison Smartt Bell

“Tone—that is the starting point of any teaching in composition. What effect are you producing and at what cost of words? The fewer the words, and the more transparent they are, the easier they will be to understand.” Jacques Barzun

“The omniscient narrator NEVER speaks colloquially. This is something it has taken me a long time to learn myself. Every time you do you lower the tone.” Flannery O’Connor

“The choice of point(s) of view, the voice in which one narrates one’s story, can make an immense difference to the tone, the effect, even the meaning of the story.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The tone of this story [A Wife of Nashville by Peter Taylor] is noticeably something—in contrast to the glassine transparency of tone in a great many contemporary short stories. The density of tone creates a kind of filter between the reader and the events of the story. The linguistic gestures all suggest the mannerism of a raconteur—a polished and capable storyteller who has politely but firmly grasped our attention.” Madison Smartt Bell

“With first-person narration, tone is identical to the sound of the narrator’s voice.” Madison Smartt Bell

“Tone. Here the place of any term in the wide range between breeziness and solemnity will be assumed to be easily felt as soon as one really pays attention to words.” Jacques Barzun

“Obviously tone is generated by words.” Jacques Barzun

“Both tone and words are the manifestation of an attitude. Whether put on or unstudied or (in most cases) half conscious, the attitude inspires the choice of words, affects the length and rhythm of the sentences, and produces an impression that the reader always takes as deliberately aimed at him. He responds to the atmosphere, and from it pictures the personality of the writer, or at least his professional type. That is why tones can be characterized by such terms as: journalistic, novelistic, legalistic, pedantic, patronizing, arrogant, smart-aleck, shuffling—and as many others as the writing itself puts into our minds.” Jacques Barzun

“Consistency . . . is the prerequisite of tone. Tone need not always be uniform but it can be harshly broken by the occurrence of an ill-assorted word or phrase. The aptest words, if not sustained by good linking, good sense, and good rhythm, will lack unity of tone. The impression given will be incoherent, and the atmosphere—possibly well established and pleasurable at the start—will dissipate.” Jacques Barzun.

“The best tone is the tone called plain, unaffected, unadorned. It does not talk down or jazz up; it assumes the equality of all readers likely to approach the given subject; it informs or argues without apologizing for its task; it does not try to dazzle or cajole the indifferent; it takes no posture of coziness or sophistication. It is the most difficult of all tones, and also the most adaptable. When you can write plain you can trust yourself in special effects.” Jacques Barzun

“The art of art, the glory of expression . . . is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity . . . nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness.” Walt Whitman

“To achieve the plain, even tone recommended by Whitman and Mark Twain, the first requisite is sincerity; the second is a distinct thought.” Jacques Barzun

“Once you have decided the degree of need for a given modifier, you must make sure that its form and meaning do not go against the tone you wish to sustain.” Jacques Barzun

“Smoothness is an element of plain tone. The slightest bump or awkwardness or jingle or unintended joke or negligent repetition derails the thought; the reader is brought up short and starts looking at words when he should be following ideas.” Jacques Barzun

“Readers vary in their awareness of bumps, but smoothness is so glasslike a property that the smallest flaw spoils it. The writer with an ear will change: ‘who was, as we have seen’ to ‘who, as we have seen, was’ in order to eliminate the wozzaz that he perceived.” Jacques Barzun

“Like everything else in good writing, it [alliteration] must not be accidental.” Jacques Barzun

“A less noticeable fault is assonance, the repetition of a vowel sound.” Jacques Barzun

“The great carrier of tone . . . is the verb; it is also the source of motion. It must therefore be chosen with precision; that is, chosen to fit the action and the actors. This attention to doing and to the agents of doing compels the writer to summon up verbs endowed with strength. A verb strong in this sense is, to begin with, a verb other than is, are, has, or have.” Jacques Barzun

“Word choice, selection, and arrangement of parts—especially juxtaposition—contribute to tone.” Philip Gerard

“If writing has a morality, it is expressed in tone.” Philip Gerard

“Even when you think you are being neutral, your fiction is projecting an attitude, even if it is an attitude by default. Pay attention to this. If the attitude, the tone, creates and effect different from the one you intended, change it.” Philip Gerard

“Attitude reflects itself in the tone of the writing.” Philip Gerard

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