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Interpreting Tone in Fiction

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  • 0:00 What is tone?
  • 0:34 Types of tone
  • 1:27 The tools of tone
  • 3:06 Tone practice
  • 5:14 Lesson summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will explore tone in fiction. We will define tone, talk about various types of tone, discuss how authors communicate tone, and practice identifying the tone of some writing samples.

What Is Tone?

Have you ever told someone, 'It's not what you said but the way you said it'? Have you ever listened to a teenager utter words that, on the surface, seem perfectly innocent but in a way that makes you boiling mad? If so, you already know a lot about tone.

Tone expresses an author's attitude toward his or her subject. In works of fiction, authors use tone to draw readers into stories, to arouse their emotions and interest and to guide their reactions to particular characters, plots and settings.

Types of Tone

An author's tone is either objective or subjective. An objective tone, which is usually used for non-fiction writing, is neutral and factual. A subjective tone, on the other hand, expresses opinions, feelings and judgments and is usually used in fiction or in pieces that relate an author's personal experiences.

A subjective tone can be any human emotion or attitude. Some possible tones include compassionate, serious, humorous, sentimental, suspenseful, nostalgic, comfortable, optimistic, pessimistic, critical, rejoicing, inquisitive, thoughtful, carefree, adventurous, intense and moralizing. This list doesn't even come close to exhausting an author's options when it comes to tone. Just think of how many different attitudes a person can take toward any given subject!

The Tools of Tone

Authors use several different tools to create and communicate their tone.

  • They choose specific words to express the emotions they want to portray. For instance, an author who wants to describe a man walking through a graveyard might select the word 'prowl' to describe the man's actions instead of the word 'stroll,' which paints a less-sinister picture.
  • Authors arrange their words in a particular way to help communicate their tone. Notice the difference between 'Bang! The door slammed shut,' and 'The door slammed shut with a bang.' The former presents a more startling and intense tone than the latter.
  • Details and imagery also help authors convey their attitudes toward their subjects. An author might, for instance, describe a black cat with glowing green eyes who slinks through the house on a mission known only to herself, or the author might write about a black cat lazily lounging in a sunbeam with eyes half closed. The first description presents a suspenseful tone while the second paints a comfortable, cozy picture.
  • Figurative language, which compares dissimilar things to make a literary point, assists authors in communicating their tone. For instance, an author might describe a surprised child as having eyes as big as dinner plates. This kind of language creates a humorous tone while a description of a surprised child hiding behind her mother is more serious in tone.

The reader's job is to identify an author's tone by using the clues left by the author's word choice and arrangement, details and imagery and figurative language.

Tone Practice

Let's practice identifying an author's tone by examining a few writing samples. In each one, the author describes the same room but uses a different tone to create and communicate a different attitude or emotion. Your answer choices for this exercise are 'suspenseful,' 'humorous,' 'nostalgic' and 'critical.'

1. The bright room's cozy nooks, slightly shabby furnishings and numerous knickknacks reminded the man of his grandmother's home, where he had spent many happy hours.

  • Which of the four tones did you select? If you said nostalgic, you're right. Notice how the author added the detail about the man spending many happy hours at his grandmother's house.

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