Tone describes the way a voice is delivered. The voice can be authorial or narrative (see earlier blog post). It can also be the voice of a character or even an actor who is playing a character.
IDENTIFYING TONE IN WRITTEN TEXTS:
In written texts, tone is created by using particular words and language features. We need to focus on what is said.
You might be trying to identify the tone of the writer of a text (i.e. the authorial voice) such as in open letters, essays, articles, diary entries, speeches or interviews.
E.G.1 Look at the language choices (specifically adjectives, verbs and direct address) in some of Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit in 2019:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just 'business as usual'…You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.”
She sounds fairly serious! A bit pissed off, right? Of course you’d choose a better term to describe the tone in your exam response!
E.G.2 Look at this excerpt from Ross Bilton’s article in 'The Weekend Australian' about mountain-biking with his son:
“After a few clumsy mistakes we begin to find our feet…whizzing down rolling straights, whooping with delight…Following my lad…down the trails, watching him swoop fast round those steep berms, fearless and joyful, having the time of his life, with his old man right behind him.”
The colloquial language (my lad, old man) creates an informal tone while the onomatopoeia (whizzing, whooping, swoop) also conveys an enthusiastic and excited tone.
You might be trying to identify the tone of voice of the main character in a text. This is often conveyed through the narrative voice of novels and short stories, usually from the first-person point of view.
E.G.3 Look at this excerpt from 'The Handmaid’s Tale' by Margaret Atwood. Offred has been banned from reading in Gilead (a patriarchal, oppressive, totalitarian society). During her visits to the Commander’s study, he gives her contraband literature to read:
“I read quickly, voraciously, almost skimming, trying to get as much into my head as possible before the next long starvation. If it were eating it would be the gluttony of the famished, if it was sex it would be a swift furtive stand up in an alley somewhere.”
The verbs, adjectives and metaphor (starvation) create a tone of desperate urgency. This helps convey to us how liberating reading is for Offred in this new oppressive society – to read is to breathe.
We can also identify the tone of other characters too, such as Aunt Lydia from 'The Handmaid's Tale':
“To be seen – to be seen – is to be – her voice trembled – penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable.” (quote from Offred, i.e. reported speech)
Atwood uses a number of techniques to convey Aunt Lydia’s tone. First, the repetition of the word ‘seen’ and the font change to italics creates emphasis and therefore we can argue conveys a serious tone. The use of the dash (not hyphen!) indicates Aunt Lydia pausing or hesitating as she speaks. This gives the impression the content of her speech is difficult to express, which further supports our argument that her tone is serious. Her word choice of ‘must’ expresses obligation and is a word used to give orders, thereby creating an instructional and serious tone. And finally, she refers to the grown women she is speaking to as ‘girls’ which creates a tone of superiority and importance. From her tone we could predict that she is likely in a position of leadership or authority. WOW! That’s, like, a full paragraph response about just one little sentence!
IDENTIFYING TONE IN VISUAL AND ORAL TEXTS
Tone is not just created by what is said but also how it is said. We can interpret the tone by analysing the language, but also the verbal techniques used by the actor/speaker: pause, volume, pace, enunciation, accent, pitch etc.
In The Dark Knight, Christian Bale creates a deep, guttural, raspy tone for Batman’s voice. His speech patterns are staggered and at times he breathes heavily in between growls. He sounds intense when he delivers his lines, right? This helps to create a serious and menacing tone to his voice, which helps Bale to create his violent, vigilante Batman identity.
Lastly, this website has a terrific list of ‘tone’ words if you need it: https://www.writerswrite.co.za/155-words-to-describe-an-authors-tone/