Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone (Part Two)

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August 24, 2021

This is the second part of our discussion on narrative vocabulary and tone.  To get the full context, start here: Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone (Part One) Part One focuses on vocabulary choice and ways to shed light on your characters' inner thoughts and world view through the language they use.

What is “Tone”? 

Compared to vocabulary choice, tone is harder to pin down. It’s more or less the way that you, the writer, feel about the story you’re telling, and how, on the page, you convey that feeling to the reader. For example, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett feel irreverent and deeply hopeful in their novel Good Omens. If Jane Austen had written a similar story about an angel and a demon accidentally losing the antichrist on the eve of Armageddon, her tone would likely have been dry and witty. Ernest Hemingway's version might have been angry and defeatist. 

You can set the tone of a story by deciding what mood or flavor you’re looking convey. Is the book meant to be light and frivolous, like a delicious marshmallow? Is it meant to be smooth and dark, like rich hot chocolate? Is it supposed to be astringent and biting, like a tart lemon martini?  

Once you’ve figured out the feeling and mood, try to reflect that in your pacing, sentence length, and yes, vocabulary choice. How long you linger on scenery or descriptions, how quickly you move from plot point to plot point, how much of the small domestic moments you share, how choppy your prose is, and which words you choose, all these elements come together to create the book’s tone. 

Alignment and Juxtaposition 

Depending on what sort of tone you’re looking to convey, you can have the character voice and narrative voice work in harmony to paint the picture for the reader, or you can provide deliberate juxtaposition, to make it clear that the narrator's opinion on the action diverges from the protagonists’.

For example: 

Poetic tone: The heather waved grey and sweet in the florid gloaming. “Oh, my dearest heart, how I love you,” the poet sighed to me, their eyes on the beautiful landscape that marked our last day together. 

Cynical tone: A rock stuck into my thigh. “You know,” he sniffed, eyes glued to the sunrise so he didn’t have to look at me. “Seeing as, eh, you know, it being the last time I’m ever gonna see you, I think I, you know…L-word you.” 

What happens if we mix and match them?

Blended: The heather waved grey and sweet, while a rock stuck awkwardly into my thigh. “You know,” the poet sighed to me, their eyes on the beautiful sunrise that marked our last day together.  “Seeing as, eh, you know,, it being the last time I’m ever gonna see you, I think I, you know…L-word you.” 

Play around with voice, tone, and vocabulary choice, to find the narrative voice works best for your book.


Pick a favorite children's story such as The Three Little Pigs, Cinderella or any other folk tale you know well. How would you tell the story so it sounds sweet and light? Can you tell it again so it sounds terrifying? How do your language, your pacing, and your tone change? What happens if you tell the story as if it were the truth? What does changes if you try to tell the same story as if you thought it were funny or sad?


Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone (Part Two)? is the eighth post in an nine part series. 

Also in this series:

Part 1: Who Is Telling Your Story

Part 2: Using More Than One Narrator

Part 3: Creating a Narrative Voice

Part 4: What is an Unreliable Narrator

Part 5: Creating Your Unreliable Narrator

Part 6: Narrative Voice: Point of View and Tenses

Part 7: Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone (Part One)

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