Monday Stretch: Toning It Down

As implied in Episode 2, we can all get “tone deaf” to the attitude we’re portraying, and the point of this exercise is to explore ways in which words and phrases impact the tone. So, pretend for a moment that you are a journalist covering a scientific breakthrough. Your job, then, is to cover the story based upon limited facts and an interview.

Purpose: To recognize the tone in your own writing

Setting: Two scientists Drs. Demitri Demitri and Ima Burns claim to have discovered the secret to cars that run on air. However, they refuse to let anyone see their invention until a “later date.”

Assignment: Based on the above information and one imaginary interview with the scientists, write two versions of a news article. In the first version, try to be as objective as you possibly can, including reasons to affirm and doubt the findings. In the second version, however, choose one side or the other and slant the article in that direction on purpose.

Questions:

  1. In the first version, what words and phrases helped you designate a more balanced approach?
  2. Find several news articles on the Internet. Does the writer’s tone come through to let you know her or his opinion?
  3. Based upon your second version, do you think it would be possible to hide your tone more effectively and still provide the same slant? Do some of the news articles you looked up do that?
  4. How neutral do you think any person can be? Why do you think that?

Bonus credit: Write a short story in which the narrator does not like the subject matter, main character, or situation. How does this impact the story?

Episode 2: Toning It Down

Every piece of writing has a tone because every piece of writing has an author. This is sometimes a tough maxim to swallow, especially if one writes news stories or more “neutral” fare. But short of a lobotomy, there’s no way to remove personality from the passion. Before we go on, let’s define some terms.

What I mean by tone (and what you’ll likely find in most creative writing courses) is the author’s attitude toward the material and/or the mood the author sets for the reader. Tone is from the author; mood is what the reader perceives based on the tone. This is not the same thing as atmosphere, however, which has to do with the feelings that the setting provokes. For example, one classic “atmosphere” line is this:

It was a dark and stormy night, and the pizza man was definitely not getting his tip.

For the overachievers, atmosphere is often related to pathetic fallacy (pathetic in the sense of emotion and not lameness).

Tone is sometimes difficult to quantify, but it has more to do with the second half of the quote above. When you or I write, we are the masters of what we choose to include (scenery, dialogue, quotes, etc.) and how we choose to frame the argument or point. In my sample sentence, you would likely expect “It was a dark and stormy night” to be followed by something more suitable, such as “and this was the winter of our discontent.” However, I chose to include something a bit more ironic, which betrays my attitude toward such a worn out phrase (i.e., I included something unexpected to undermine the “seriousness” of the setting).

You, as a writer, have most of the power in choosing the frame. Obviously, there are “filters” between you and the potential reader, including a potential editor (or three) and the reader’s own personality, beliefs, and expectations. But the author’s tone sets the issue, story, or poem up in a particular fashion.

Let’s look at an example. Here are two different ways of approaching the same topic.

I suppose Madison thought she could save the cat when she flung herself into the street.

Now the other one:

Madison charged into the street to save the cat, but she was just a moment too late.

In the first sentence, my tone is one of contempt for Madison’s efforts—she shouldn’t have even tried is the message I want to convey. In the second sentence, I want the reader to know that she gave it all she had—nearly heroic in her efforts. A few different words can make a big difference.

That’s why word choice is of tantamount importance when you are writing. No matter what the type of writing—journalistic to poetic—your voice carries through. Your tone can generate just as much of a message as your sentences or verses. A good writer takes note of the audience, the purpose, and the ethical concerns (e.g., what the readers expect) when constructing effective writing.

Monday Stretch: Show and Tell

After you have read or reviewed Episode 1: Show and Tell, try your hand at this exercise.

Purpose: To recognize the difference between showing and telling in prose

Setting: While Virgil weeds his garden, Adrianne watches him. (Feel free to embellish the characters and surroundings as you see fit.)

Assignment: Write one paragraph from Virgil’s point of view (does not have to be first person) in which you show what happens, and then write one paragraph from Adrianne’s point of view (again, not necessarily first person) in which you tell what happens.

Questions:

  1. Which paragraph seems more effective?
  2. How could you use “telling”? In what situations would such an approach work?

Bonus credit: Write a short story in first person with an unreliable narrator who occasionally tells the reader what to see, think, or feel. Have fun with it.

Episode 1: Show and Tell

Kindergarten could teach you a great deal about writing—or so the conventional wisdom goes. There are hundreds of writing teachers and professors and books that will emphatically relay the time-tested nugget of knowledge that a writer should “show and not tell.” But what does this mean? And is it the best advice for all situations?

When someone tells you that the best writers show and don’t tell, they often don’t explain what is meant by this phrase. Essentially, the axiom refers to describing the event, setting, motivation, or action instead of filtering the information through the narrator or character. That is, the best writing, according to this school of thought, invariably results when the author relates it “raw” instead of cooking it up and serving it. Let’s look at an example.

Showing:

The wind threw leaves and rain against the window. Jason huddled in the corner with his arm over his eyes and waited for the storm to pass.

Telling:

Jason saw the leaves and rain hitting the window. He was acting terrified of the storm because he didn’t like it.

The reason that you are likely to hear this advice so often is because showing usually results in a fresher, more interesting story, poem, or article. As you can see, the first example let’s us know what is happening and the mindset of the character, as does the second example. However, the first example presents the same information directly and gives the “feeling” of immediacy. That’s the main purpose for “showing”: it engages the reader’s senses and mind.

On the other hand, there is no explicit rule for always “showing” instead of “telling,” and no writer should remove the latter from his or her repertoire. For example, telling can be an effective way in prose to cast doubt on the narrator (if the narrator is not a trustworthy source of information). A narrator that sometimes tells the reader what to think is one that can be very interesting.

In addition, telling instead of showing can build in a level of disconnect that may be appropriate for the situation. If I tell what Jason saw, I add a layer of distance for the reader, which may be needed if Jason is sick, disconnected, or not quite sane.

Jason thought he saw something move in the corner, but when he looked, there was nothing there.

In the above example, I have filtered the action through Jason’s eyes, but this helps us to see how Jason is starting to imagine things that aren’t really there. On the other hand, I could also fool the reader by not filtering and playing along with Jason’s imaginary friends, but that is purely a stylistic choice. Context and mood are key.

If you are in doubt, the best advice is to remove the verbs see, hear, thought, or felt from your writing until you get a grip on when telling can be effective. Just remember this illustration: showing is like solving a puzzle yourself and telling is like looking at the answer in the back of the book.