Watch that Tone of Voice, Missy!

What is tone?

Tone of voice in writing, as in speaking, is not about what you say, but how you say it.

If you were to tell a story in person, you would be able to call upon your gestures, facial expressions, and pitch of voice to put the mood across. If you were directing a film, you’d have music and scene to call upon as well. You might even fake some rain. On the page, you have only your words.

The tone you use shapes how your readers will feel about the characters and stories you write.

How do you set tone?

Perhaps you know the experience of thinking one thing only to reassess the situation later and change your mind—a relationship, say, that’s gone sour, or a kiss-a-frog scenario that produces a prince. How you write this experience would depend upon when you took it on: in the frog mode, or after the prince arrived.

Whatever the tone, you have to relax into it, give up the rules so as to develop its richness.

The tone you choose affects word choice, pitch, syntax, imagery, volume, point of view, and degree of formality. You might use an appeal to the senses, metaphor, humor, or any of a number of other devices. What you leave out can be just as pertinent as what you include.

How does tone differ from voice?

Tone is mood, painted with whatever brush and color suits what you’re trying to convey. Voice is personality. It’s how your readers know it’s you.

A writer works at both voice and tone.  Tone is actually the easier to come by, and it will help you find your voice, as well.

Why is tone important?

Tone is what a reader will remember.

It’s the flavor of something. It’s the inflection, the take-away. A reader may not remember what happened, or why, or even your characters, but he will likely remember how it struck him.

It was creepy. It was so sad. It was childlike in its innocence. It was heartbreaking and really beautiful.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Singer Beth Ditto from; drawing from

Follow the Odd Fact

Good stories are birthed in part from keen observation. This covers a lot of territory. The writer must, from on high to down low, see it all, or at least a lot of it, and make some sense of it, but once in a while you stumble, caught up on an odd fact.

1.  What’s odd?

It’s the thing that doesn’t add up, that really doesn’t belong.  It’s the thing you hear or see and go—Huh, that’s weird. Why he’d look that way? Why’d he change the subject? Odd choice of words. He did what?­ Not really!

And then you move right on.

But you never really forget that oddity. It jumbles your sense of order. You’d like to tidy up your assessment of things, but it resists a neat solution.

2.  Why follow it?

Many reasons.

It may prove to critical to your understanding of something. It might change your view about what you believe you know. You might like to set something right, or even up the bangs in the mirror.  Or maybe it’s because the odd fact introduces confusion, and you’d like not to be confused.

3. In a world of irregularity, which odd fact should you follow?

Like a truffle pig, your nose will tell you where to scratch.

But there are certain subjects that usually prove interesting. If your odd fact pops up in the arena of romance, or change in routine, or change of appearance, chances are that you will learn something if you dig.

One of my favorite realms for a closer look concerns money.

Not enough of it, too much of it, all cash, a locked attaché, a too-generous tipper, a different name on the credit card, too much confidence, too many accounts, erratic spending, too high, too low . . . ?  You might have a story there. Get to the bottom of it, and what you find might just curl your hair.

4. So, thinking of asking a few follow-up questions?

Keep an open mind. Seek your moment. Listen. And proceed with caution. Worlds may crack open.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: walking boots and  sow from; sign from

Fact, Fiction, or the Gospel Truth?

Let’s talk about bells for a minute.

We all have some experience with bells. I know of a little glass one, for example, that was rung discretely at a Central Park West dining table to beckon the servant. And another that jingled so engagingly when a particular pastry shop door opened on the Left Bank of Paris. The first bell speaks to privilege and the latter is reminiscent of youthful romance. But there were more profound bells in my life.

When I was young, I summered on the shores of Lake Erie and roamed what, to my child’s eye, was a vast amount of leafy acreage. And when it was time for dinner, my grandmother rang a loud and beat-up cowbell, and I came running.

Fast forward some forty years, and I’m raising my kids on a lake with leafy acreage here in Vermont. And there’s a bell mounted to a tree, down by the water. Apart from its various uses in various games, its prime purpose is to sound an alarm if someone falls off a swing, or gets stung by a bee, or otherwise runs into trouble, as it’s a long way up the hill to make such announcements in person.

It’s a lovely, sonorous sound, and like the cowbell of old, it’s emblematic of connection between parent and child, caring, and communication—subjects that run deep.

Now, what if I were to use a bell in something I was writing? I could choose an ornamental expression of it, but I could also call upon the most profound of my bell images—the one that speaks of connection—and reinvent it to fit the story.

What would I call that bell? Is it nonfiction? Is it fiction? Is it some hybrid fusion of genres that booksellers have no idea how to treat?

As fiction writers, we take the facts we know, spin them around in our storytelling art, and try to get at truth. Not sure what to call this mix?

Call it fiction and, possibly, add an appropriate tagline, like “based on a true story,” or write up your equivocal thoughts about it in an author’s note, attached as an addendum.  (I always read the author’s notes, by the way, and maybe even first.)

But until we get a well-established  “mostly fiction” (“faction”) category, or a “somewhat autobiographical” genre, or “the whole truth, so help me God” category, a fiction label is the only choice, even if, in blending fact and fiction, you get closer to the gospel truth than either, by itself, would allow.

Interested in hearing more about truth in art, and art used to tell the truth? Go here, where you’ll find a short clip on the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. He makes the point that if you’re not telling the truth, big or small, what are you?

What are you writing these days? Fact, fiction, or something even closer to the truth?

Comments listed with first names only, and website, if provided, but not your email. Your privacy protected, so speak your mind, if inclined. I always answer.

Photo credits: Bell with beaded cord – rockdoggydog; cowbell –

Break These Rules

The written arts, like any art, demand the antithesis of formula. The writer must always consider his options, many of which lie beyond the fences. Break through the barriers, and what is original, brilliant, provocative, controversial, and/or authentic about you and your work has a chance to shine. While it’s important to know what masters of the art say you must or must not do, that doesn’t mean that the rules laid down may not be broken. These, for instance, could stand some bending:

1. Don’t take on taboo subjects.

Politics, religion, money, no-no sex—did I miss any? These are interesting, complicated subjects—why do you think we’ve built up taboos around them?—and an intelligent, artful treatment is a very good thing.

2. Just dash it out: write!

Actually, thinking time is writing time. And it saves time and agony. Of course you’re going to write until your fingers bleed, but think, plan, and test before you do.

3. Write with confidence.

Confidence is a fine quality and your reader expects that you know what you are doing.   As such, phrases like “I think” and “in my opinion” can water down your work and suggest insecurity, so use sparingly, as the rule implies. But too much confidence is just as bad and can make you look arrogant. “Write with a modicum of graciousness” is a better rule to follow. Or “Write with some compassion.” To achieve this, you have to set aside confidence and immerse yourself in the shaky, vulnerable territory of what it means to be human. Write with a respect for that, and your reader will mark you as someone to trust.

4. Eliminate adverbs.

Adverbs cover a lot of territory and tell us manner (how something is), place, time, and degree (“most”  or “some,”  for example).  Why would a writer want to eliminate all this necessary information? A more useful rule is “Use your adverbs well.” Don’t be redundant (“smiled happily”), or litter your text with intensifiers (“very,” “really,” “totally,”  “definitely”), or be sloppy or vague (“clearly, you don’t understand”), or modify attribution (“he spit angrily,” “she said wearily”).  These clunky examples are why the master, Stephen King, has quipped that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” An adverb used well, however, provides something essential.  In the phrase “more useful rule” the  word “more” is essential.   Without it, “useful rule” implies that the other rule is useless. So “more” changes the meaning, which in this application makes it essential. Stick to what’s essential, and you won’t go wrong.

5. A flashy title is everything.

Yes, an eye-popping, irresistible title brings your reader to the page. But if you don’t deliver what you promise, you’ve deceived him. And disappointed, he will run. Once, for example, in a blog by a female on the written arts, I stumbled on a title that read something like “Why I Slept with a Woman.” This intrigued me. What do the written arts have to do with the sexual innuendo the title implied?  Nothing, it turned out. It was just a ho-hum post on how to save money at a conference by sharing a room with another of the attendees.  Cheap shot.  Don’t expect me back.  I’ll be reading where the titles, flashy or not, are honest, and the posts deliver what they promise

6. Be your own best friend.

A case of withered spirits is not going to help a writer produce anything. So, by all means, cheer yourself up, whatever it takes. But you also have to get real. There are inherent difficulties with your chosen work—isolation, rejection, penury, and more. If you’re going to do the work, you have to reconcile the reality to the dream. Otherwise, you’ll be in a constant state of feeling had, which is not fertile grounds for good work.

7. Write about what you know.

Of course, the particulars of your own life will influence what you write. But feel free to reach beyond these boundaries to what you don’t yet know, and bring it back for the rest of us.

8.  Adhere to proper grammar.

The rules say you shouldn’t split infinitives, or end a sentence with a preposition, or begin one with “and,” “but,” or “however,” but loosen up already. The English language is a roomy, conversational, lumpy, elegant, expansive, delicate, nuanced, complicated thing. Explore the outer reaches of it, by all means. Tell your story in 140-character releases on Twitter, if you choose, and forget the grammar police. Want “to boldly go” rather than “to go boldly” where no man has been before? Go for it.

9.  Work every day.

Nonsense. Everyone needs rest.

>  If you’d like to know how other writers size up the dos and don’ts, check out this.

>  And here’s a thoughtful expression of the whole concept of writing reinterpreted to include . . . well, no written expression at all.  How’s that for breaking with convention?

Broken any rules lately? What’s your favorite do or don’t?

Comments listed with first names only, and website, if provided, but not your email. Your privacy protected, so speak your mind, if inclined. I always answer.

Photo credits: bricks, explosion – eyestar, sxc; hammer – ItsMe 1985, sxc. The “hell” quote: King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 118. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.

What’s your Point of View?

Who is telling the story and in what voice?

The lens through which your reader sees, hears, and otherwise experiences the story is the story’s point of view. The POV you choose allows you to direct your reader’s attention to whatever detail, opinion, or emotion you seek to develop. It sets the feel and tone of your story, and can even determine meaning.

Any POV will do. Just choose the best one to suit the material:

1. First person.

There we were, young law students squirming in our seats in evidence class, when three strangers burst into the room. They were fighting, arguing, a gun waved, a shot heard, two men—and a woman? Dark clothed, red-haired?

And then they were gone.

It wasn’t until the professor told us to sit quietly, no talking, and write down what we saw, that the ruse came to light.

This little scrap of a vignette is in first person; the narrator (a student, squirming in his seat) is part of the action. That narrator uses words like I, me, my, mine, we, us, our.

Any student in the room could serve as a first person narrator. The professor could narrate, as well, in a first person voice, as could the professor next door, who might complain about the noise. The decision depends on what you choose to emphasize in your story.

First person point of view can provide wonderful intimacy—the narrator was there, after all!—but it’s not without drawbacks.  You’re limited to the eyes and ears of a single narrator. This makes the narrator knowledgeable about some things, the things that touch his own experience, and yet unknowledgeable about others. The narrator might even be so myopic as to be untrustworthy. In this case, the reader may have to look beyond the narrator’s voice to learn the whole story, and it is up to the writer to seed the material with the relevant information.

2. Second person.

You were in evidence class, sitting there, slumped in your seat, hoping not to be called upon when you heard the door slam open. You jumped, heart pounding. What was this? You couldn’t fathom what was happening. You heard a shot. You dove for the floor.

The use of second person is rare. The writer speaks directly to the reader, as if he were an actor in the tale.

The upside to it is that it is very immediate: the reader is drawn right in, as if a participant in the scene. The downside is that it can get clumsy and even aggressive as if an index finger poked in the reader’s chest to punctuate the you, you, you.

If you’re curious as to how it might play out in novel form, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Bright City is the oft-cited example.

3. Third person.

Some of the shocked students didn’t even see the woman. Others thought it was a guy in drag. Some saw the gun. Others thought the shot came from the hall. One thought it was a firecracker. Someone saw a ski mask. Someone else reported, from his position under the desk, on the shoes the intruders wore. No one noticed the professor, who attempted to hide a smile behind a hand. A man on the street reached for his cell phone.

In third person, the narrator is on the outside looking in and simply telling the reader what he sees and hears. He did this, she thought that.

In the most sweeping use of it, the narrator is omniscient and can express any and all the perspectives that touch the scene from the actors, to the students, to the professors, to the passer-by on the street, if the writer wanted.

In a more focused use of it, the narrator’s knowledge is limited to what a few characters know, not all of them. Other characters may appear in the story, but the writer can’t comment on their thinking, as his knowledge is limited to the few he’s chosen.

And in the “close third” use of it, the writer limits his narrator’s knowledge to just one character, or a few characters presented one at a time, with the narration shifting between them as needed.  An example would be a narrator who speaks about just one student in the room, or the student and the professor, say, shifting between them. Close third can feel a lot like first person in that it conveys a similar sense of intimacy, but the voice is still third (he, she – not I, me).

So, what works well for you?  Have a favorite POV?

Comments listed with first names only, and website, if provided, but not your email. Your privacy protected, so speak your mind, if inclined. I always answer.

Photo credits: telescope by seaan; child and spy glass by mhartford