There’s been a discussion lately among some writers I know about ‘tone.’ Specifically, the tone required by confession stories. The discussion didn’t progress very far before I felt completely overwhelmed. Because when I write, I just write. I think about how to best tell the story and how best to convey that to the reader. And that’s about it. Maybe I’ve been lucky that I hit it enough of the time that people read what I wrote.
But tone is important, I know that. Furthermore, I also know that it differs from one genre to another. Read a couple high fantasy stories and you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you didn’t understand the tone of high fantasy, you might think you were reading something by one of Chaucer’s contemporaries. Which is completely different from the tone of a hard-boiled private eye novel. Or a Regency romance. Or a confession story.
So what is tone?
After the discussion, I did some thinking and realized that I’ve always known subconsciously what it was. It’s what’s between the words of every well-written story. It’s not actual description but it lets the reader know what the setting and characters are like. It’s not dialogue but it can and often does dictate how the characters speak. It doesn’t tell the story, but it’s in every scene, often unnoticed, complementing and explaining and interpreting but not interfering. with the actual story-telling
Its importance cannot be overstated. Without it, readers will turn away in droves because, as much as the story… sometimes even more… tone is what readers want. Why they really read. What they are looking for. Because it’s the feeling they will take with them after the story is finished.
Let me give an example. Is a ghost story best told during a Sunday picnic in the middle of the day in the midst of a few hundred laughing guests… or around a campfire in a remote forest with no moon and dark clouds scudding across the sky tossing treetops awry? If you choose that night-time setting and put it together with the creepy, softly scary voice in which campfire tales are best told, you have tone. It’s the thing listeners will remember long after they’ve forgotten the story itself.
So that’s what tone really is. Not the story. Not the characters. Not the description. Not the dialogue. It’s the way the writer puts all of those things together in way that makes the reader feel the story. And isn’t that what we as writers hope will happen every time we write?