Helping Students Master Tone In Their Writing

i am a writer
When it comes to crafting a story, your students know all the right steps. Like good cooks, they dutifully add each of the right ingredients at the right time: an attention-grabbing opening, appropriate scene setting and characterizations, a gradual build to the climax, and a satisfying resolution.

And yet, something crucial is missing.

While their stories may be creative, they lack emotion and vibrancy. The characters and events don’t leap off the page as vividly as they could. And you don’t feel as though even the author cares very much about the outcome of the story he is telling.

So what’s going on?

In cases like this one, your students are struggling with tone.

Simply put, tone is the author’s attitude towards the subject. It is revealed through point-of-view and through the words that the author chooses.

Tone is a critical element in a good story. It subtly lets the readers how they should feel about the characters and the things that happen to them. In fact, tone is almost like a character in and of itself. It is the medium through which the reader enters the story and becomes a part of it.

But at the same time, tone is a difficult concept to teach. In many ways, it’s subjective and abstract.

Even so, you can guide your students to master the art of strong tone in their writing.

Here’s how.

Learning from a favorite story

The best place to start when learning to write is by reading.

And what’s better to read than a story your students already know and love?

Take a look at a favorite story while paying particular attention to someone you may not have noticed before: the author.

Start by reading a brief bio of the author. You may find one on the book jacket.

As you read, discuss the decisions the author made in creating the story. Why did she choose a particular setting for the story instead of a different one? Why did he choose certain words, like the word “frigid” instead of just saying “cold?”

When you’re finished, discuss how the author feels about each of the characters and each event. How do you know the author felt this way? And how does that make you feel as a reader?

These discussions will allow your students to articulate that elusive element of tone which they’ve always been vaguely conscious of but never expressed.

Now, they’ll be ready to apply it to their own story.

Truth: stranger (and better) than fiction?

The relationship between truth and fiction is complex. Often a memoir or autobiography, which is supposedly true, has some slight elements of the fantastical for effect. And on the other hand fiction, which is invented, almost always has its roots in some of the true experiences of the author. Whether it’s a true story or not, it seems clear that the best fiction has at least a little bit of truth within it. It is that small element of truth which can introduce some magic to the tonal quality of your students’ writing.

Is your student writing a personal narrative disguised as a story? Encourage her to try writing in the third person. This allows her the freedom to describe her main character as an outside observer, in a way that can be humorous, affectionate, or even disdainful. The audience will see the character very differently than they would if the story were written as an autobiographical “first person” narrative.

On the other hand, if the story is purely imaginary, it could be more fun to write it in the first person, as if your young author has actually experienced it. The tastes, sights, sounds, and emotions of a fantasy world can be vividly recreated if it is experienced first-hand just as the main character does.

The choice of first person vs. third person writing can make a huge difference in the tone of the story. Have students experiment with both so they can get a feel for the differences.

Words that pack a punch

And last but not least, make sure that your students carefully consider the words they choose. The advice “show, don’t tell” definitely applies here.

Encourage students to reveal characterizations through actions rather than words. Don’t say, “Mr. Potter was mean.” Instead, write about some specific actions of Mr. Potter that reveal this character trait.

Another trick: avoid adverbs (i.e., “quickly,” “completely,” “rather,” and worst of all, “very). Whenever a student uses one of these words, coach him in choosing a stronger word that conveys his message better. For example, instead of “walked slowly,” he could say, “strolled.” Instead of “very angry,” he could use the word “enraged.”

Choosing stronger words is a quick and effective way for your students to build tone in their writing.

Improving the tonal quality of student writing may seem like an overwhelming task. But the payoff will be great as your students’ writing becomes ever more vivid and powerful.



Amy Gardner