Tone: The Writer's Voice in the Reader's Mind

by Mort Castle
The Internet Writing Journal, September 2000
Johnny, the new kid, walks into third grade, casually waves to his teacher, Ms. Cruth, and says, "How's it goin', Butthead?"

"We do not talk that way in this class, Johnny," says Ms. Cruth. Opting for educational strategy #101: neo-traditional negative reinforcement, but not allowed to hit, she sends Johnny to the corner.

The next day, Johnny steps into the classroom, with "Hey, what's up, Ms. Bimbo?"

"Corner, Johnny," says Ms. Cruth.

The day after, Johnny comes into the classroom. He says, "Good morning, Ms. Cruth."

"Go to the corner, Johnny," says Ms. Cruth.

"Huh?" Johnny's inquiring mind wants to know, "Why are you sending me to the corner? I did not call you 'Butthead' and I did not call you 'Ms. Bimbo', and I didn't say one word that might be considered pejorative!"

"No," says Ms Cruth, "but I don't like your tone."

When we speak to others, our tone of voice is no less important than our actual words. Call your faithful friend, Fido, into the room, for our experiment in tone. Granted, with the difference in the communicative arts as practiced by human being and canine being, the following analogy's is not fully apropos, yet 'twill serve:

Talk to your dog. Though your tone is a warm one, you know, "praise the pup, I love my wonderful companionate animal, etc.," don't use real words of praise. Try: "Fido, you double ugly moron, you stinky poo puppy, you drecky wretched doggy dastard!"

Fido wags his tail. All is well. I may not get the words, but I know what you mean.

In speaking, stressed sounds, vocal cadences, pronunciation, rhythm and pauses, repetition, voice pitch, timbre, and volume, etc. help the listener get the message. The "sincere" tone tells the listener "I'm sorry" truly indicates..."I am sorry." Yet, with a sneering, sarcastic tone, those same two words can implicitly say, "I am sorry I did not cause you half the grief, misery, agony, and woe I could have had I only been a trace more imaginative."

The "Listen up" tone is for when the mechanic needs to hear that this time, damn it, he'd better find the oil leak.

The "cooing selected little nothings" tone can be well suited for the prelude to the proposal moment, whether that be a major commitment proposal or a suggestion of serious messing around.

Most kids know the tone that signals, "You'd really better cut it out and this time I mean it!"

The conspiratorial tone signals it's "True dirt dishing time."

The "ha ha ha ready to happen" tone is for the joke...

The writer putting words on the page (or computer screen or out there in cyberville!) also has a tone of voice. The writer, of course, does not have a speaker's unique tone tools: vocal cords, sinus cavities, lip, tongue, and palette, etc. Nor does the writer have a raised eyebrow to provide a hint, nor a smile, nor a broad hand wave. Instead, tone is achieved by choice and arrangement of our prime building blocks: words.

The reader hears -- and responds to -- that tone of voice as he is reading.

That voice, that tone, must be suited to the material so that reader clearly understands what is said, understands on both the literal and the figurative levels.
"Let us go then, you and I," T.S. Eliot begins "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The tone is somber and formal, made more so, perhaps, by the deliberate grammar fluff of the nominative "I" used instead of the objective "me," an error often made by those hoping to sound "educated": the reader is invited to undertake a desolate and wearying journey. The tone helps to establish the mood of the poem, gives the reader the reader a feeling. But if Eliot had begun, with (or without an apology to The Ramones): "Hey ho! Let's go!"

Or had he whined in classic Jerry Lewis style, "Look, would you please come on, already? Aw, just come on, okay?"

Or in keeping with contemporary "dirty words currently acceptable on Prime Time Network TV": "Let's haul ass!"

Well, we would not exactly be anticipating gloom and soul dread as we walk with J. Alfred, would we?

Consider the opening of Edgar Alan Poe's familiar "The Tell-Tale Heart":
True! - nervous - very very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad?
There's an immediate rush of energy with that very first word and exclamation point: A frantic energy. A crazed madman's energy. You hear the protagonist protesting way, way more than a "bit too much" the idea that he is insane. To use today's pseudo-artistic term, the "edgy tone" of the story is established: a barely-in-control-and-soon-to-wig-out tone.

The right tone, the proper voice in the reader's mind, lets you say what you want to say the way you want to say it.

And the wrong tone...

In the scene that follows from a deservedly unpublished short story, Mike is visited by his psychopathic brother, Arnold. Mike believes Arnold intends to kill him--and Mike is right.
Arnold stepped in. "How are you doing, Mike?" he asked.

"I've been doing all right," Mike responded promptly.

"That's good," Arnold said.

"How about you?" Mike asked.

"Well, I guess I have been doing okay," Arnold calmly said.

"I'm glad to hear it. It certainly is a snowy day."

"I guess everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it," Arnold said. "That is my opinion, anyway."

"I agree," Mike said.

Then Arnold shouted, "It's a perfect day for you to die, you dirty rat!"
Except for Arnold's closing outburst, the tone of this passage is mundane, prosaic, no more tense (or interesting) than that of an ordinary, everyday conversation you might overhear in the dentist's waiting room. It is totally unsuited for what is meant to be a moment of high drama.

Here's another cutting from a different "wrong tone" story. The protagonist is attempting to get up the nerve to stand before an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and say for the first time: "My name is Sharon and I am an alcoholic." She sits, biting her nails, and then shakily gets to her feet,
...flinging her hair back like a galloping filly tossing its mane ...
Uh-uh. That "mane tossing filly" gives the scene an inappropriate tone. My Girl Friend Flicka. Light-hearted Retro-Range-Romance: Up rides Dale Evans on Buttermilk, meeting her spunky niece from out East, Manda Llewellyn Travis... This light hearted tone and the upbeat optimism one feels make for what most critics would judge wrong.

That is not to say, of course, that only the "comic tone" can be employed for comic writing, that the "romantic tone" tone must be used for romance writing, that a horrific tone must be used for horror writing.

Let's spend a tone moment with the late Charles Beaumont, one of my all time literary heroes and the writer of many classic short short stories that came to typify what is thought of as "Playboy Magazine horror" in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Beaumont's short story is called "Free Dirt":

It opens:
No fowl had ever looked so posthumous.
Seven words -- and the tone is established. "Posthumous" gives the sentence an overly formal, almost pompous tone. "Fowl," rather than chicken, is likewise formal. The voice that reads this sentence inside the reader's mind is wryly sardonic, not unlike the voice of the late Alfred Hitchcock. There's humor here, but it's dark humor, the laughter we can hear as we stand by the grave site, and it's perfect for a brief and utterly chilling story, a work of "moral fiction" in the best sense: It teaches in a non-didactic way.

The right tone, then, is the one that allows the writer to speak clearly to the reader. The goal, of course, is the essence of the writer-reader relationship: I get it, the reader implicitly says.

You don't want your home builder cracking up with laughter, telling you that you should be swapping one liners with Leno, when you demand he put the front door in front, just as the blueprints have it, instead of on the roof--

-- and you don't want your reader snickering, giggling, guffawing, and hoo-ha-ing because your voice in his mind cues him to laugh at your sequel to A Christmas Carol, in which Tiny Tim dies of consumption, Bob Cratchit is run over by a hansom cab, and Scrooge gets murdered by Marley's ghost!


Mort Castle **Horror author Mort Castle has more than 350 short stories and a dozen books to his credit, including Cursed Be the Child (Leisure Books, 1994) and The Strangers. His most recent release is Moon on the Water, a collection of short stories. A dedicated and talented writing teacher, he takes pride in the fact that more than 2,000 of his students, ranging in age from six to ninety-three, have seen their work in print. He is a frequent keynote speaker at writing conferences and has given over 800 presentations to writers, would-be writers, and teachers of writing. His book, Writing Horror (Writer's Digest, 1997), for which he served as Editor, has become the "bible" for aspiring horror authors, and is packed with tips and information about the genre. It also includes interviews with some of horror's top stars, such as Stephen King. He is also the Executive Editor of Thorby Comics, which publishes the popular comic books Night City, Death Asylum, The Skulker, Blythe: Nightvision, and Johnny Cosmic.





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