I was invited to be a guest lecturer this morning in The Simon Fraser University Writer's Studio speculative and fantasy fiction class. This is the material we covered on tone (some of it adapted from the websites I mention). Although this morning was geared specifically to editing and polishing prose with regard to tone, the concept can be helpful for poetry too. These are some exercises I find beneficial with regard to tightening diction.
Tweaking the Tone
What is tone? Group Brainstorm
Some definitions of tone with regard to colour, sound, painting, etc. (from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary):
a musical or vocal sound with reference to its pitch, quality, and strength
the general character or attitude of a place, piece of writing, situation, etc.
the effect in painting of light and shade together with color
normal tension or responsiveness to stimuli
general character, quality, or trend
color quality or value
a tint or shade of color
the color that appreciably modifies a hue or white or black
as a verb:
give greater strength or firmness to the body or a part of it "exercise tones up the muscles"
became stronger or firmer
harmonize with (something) in terms of color "the rich orange color of the wood tones beautifully with the yellow roses"
& the literary definition:
A writer’s attitude toward the subject, which can influence the mood or feeling developing in the reader
Getting to the Heart of Tone
Participants can take a few minutes to privately jot down answers to these questions based on the material they are workshopping in The Writer’s Studio, then each person will have the opportunity to share answers with the group:
Exercise One – Defining Tone
• Why am I writing this?
• Who am I writing it to?
• What do I want the readers to learn, understand, or think about?
• Based on your answers to the above questions, what is the overall tone of your current fiction piece?
• How does it sharpen or enhance your theme?
Exercise Two – Tweaking the Tone
Tone can manifest through any element of a story – diction (language/ vocabulary), symbols, setting, voice, character, syntax, sentence structure, punctuation, etc., although personally, when adding the final brushstrokes of tone to a piece of writing, I focus especially on diction and symbolism.
• What is the setting of your story and what imagery do you use to reveal it?
• What symbols are key to your novel and how are they described?
• How is your main character depicted? What language do you use to convey his or her traits?
Do all the elements of the novel and chapter combine to create one overall main feeling or mood? If the tone fluctuates, can it be brought into sync? For example, even though Hamlet has comic relief scenes with the gravediggers throwing around bones, the imagery of those scenes still matches the existentialist nature of the play and human fears surrounding the mystery of death. It’s said that if there’s a problem in a piece of writing, it generally relates to tone, so if work is not landing, I would go through the above checklist for every element of the fiction, such as point of view, voice, etc., look at the vocabulary identified with it and aim to unify the tone with sensory imagery, sharp synonyms and even cutting sections that do not move the story forward, though that’s a drastic step :)
As participants take one last look over a chapter or novel to ensure that the diction and symbolism serve the theme and advance the plot as efficiently and effectively as possible, they can identify how their use of language in key narrative elements evokes their overall tone.
Tweaking is a fine line. There’s a point where everything works as well as it can together and the section or story is polished. Trust yourself.