• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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And the Moon Rose Over an Open Field

What people talk about when they talk about tone. Don’t take that tone, little lady. He is so tone-deaf. What is this thing called “tone.” And how do you achieve it, control it, deploy it, enact it? Is it a quality of voice or a quality of prose. It is sprinkled on top or baked in? In some ways it’s like a rudder, doing all the steering from beneath. The tone tells you how to read what you’re about to read, and how to feel about it once you’ve done. Often, I forget everything about a book except the way it made me feel and that was often account on the tone. It’s a buzz in your ear, a sermon from on high, it’s fuck me pumps and fuck you boots. It’s a messy bun and the wrath of Anna Wintour. I have a feeling it’s something you can’t teach. Though maybe something you can learn.

How do you define tone?

8 Responses

  1. Is tone a function of Love,
    Or a lack thereof?.

    Seems to me if tone is stilted, offputting, hostile, or cold, it makes the author’s task of communication difficult, at best.
    So, a more welcoming, accessible tone comes from some sense of compassion–a true desire to reach out and include a diverse potential audience.
    And in the reaching out is generosity but also a practical vehicle by which to deliver your message.

  2. “How do you define tone?”

    I don’t think I could define it better than you have, Betsy. A young writing student and I were discussing tone just yesterday. He’s doing a study of the litmag, NOON, for his AP Lit final project. Diane Williams is the editor of NOON, and everything that she publishes in it, no matter who the writer is, has a certain tone to it that, though hard to define, is unmistakable, and reflects or refracts or recasts in some way the tone she brings to her own stories. Her editing of the various writers’ various works in NOON shows a certain tone, or range of harmonious tones.

    So what is it, this tone, not specifically, but as you ask, generally? Could I say any better to any reader, other than, you’ll know it when you see it, and good luck defining it? Likely not.

  3. How would I define tone . . .

    This was a head scratcher.

    In one small word – mood, or maybe attitude. It’s the way a writer picks out certain words, strings them together and it gives the story a certain vibe. Like CATCHER IN THE RYE’S Holden Caufield, who delivers his internal thoughts with biting sarcasm, and moments of humor.

    I think tone is a lot like personality.

    And the more I think about it, the more I feel a headache coming on. Haha.

  4. I’m thinking of tone in association with music, rhythm working with melody. The words become notes that form a song. In days of olde (days of yore?), itinerant minstrels would roam the countryside bringing their interpretations of opera to people who otherwise would not have access to these “stories”. They’d also put current events to music to help spread the word, no matter how biased. The music set the mood for the words, whether sadness, anger, humor or joy. Call and response songs often warned of danger. Messages hidden in simple songs, delivered with harmonies too pure to arouse suspicion. Those seeking the tone must start with the song.

  5. I think it’s intentional, intrinsic to the material, yet natural. Nope, can’t teach it. Maybe it can be learned. Maybe. Just as tone leaves one feelin’ a certain way, doesn’t it make the writer feel it as well?
    I mean, I laugh when I’m funny and cry when I’m moved by my own stuff. I’m sarcastic when I wanna be. I’d say tone emanates from the authenticity of the writing.

  6. in fiction it seems the tone is associated with voice, at least it is for me, but word choice is key. i dunno. tone is a hard one. i think it’s achieved in edits but i could be wrong?

    i think of tone as the long groove of the record on a player. it pulls you through all the songs on side A, all the best songs arranged in the best order and for the best effect. until you get to the scratchy bit at the end, the one you leave as you linger in your thoughts–that the underlying sound of the tone that you don’t realize is there until the end.

    rea

    • sigh. “that’s the underlying sound of the ton that you don’t realize is there until the end.”

      clearly i suck at edits.

  7. I think tone is mostly about degrees of authority on the part of the writer. You start to get that comfortable sense, by means of rhythm and just-right verbs and the space that comes from an absence of bullshit, that you are being led by someone who knows where you’re going and how to get there.

    I know nothing about higher education and what can or can’t be taught, but I believe tone-deafness is as real in writing as it is in music. People love bad music, though, and we all saw what happened with Fifty Shades of Shitty, so it’s one of those things we can choose to care about or not, depending on the desired outcome.

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