“Tone” in fiction guides our emotional responses. Is the story funny, sad, tragic, or ironic, or all these? Let’s take a look at the gamut of Tone in Fiction, with examples and clues to distinguishing tone and irony.
How to Read Fiction Step 6: Distinguishing Tone
When teaching Tone and Irony in fiction, I often began by asking the class to imagine a scenario:
Suppose that I, the instructor, walk into the classroom where all the students are assembled. I stride purposefully toward my desk, but before I can get there, I hit a wet spot on the floor. I slide, falter, and fall– boom!– right onto my derriere. Papers go flying, my handbag spills, books scatter. A classroom tragedy!
Or is it? Maybe it’s not tragic at all, but actually kind of funny? Or even truly slapstick, knee-slapping funny? Or perhaps it’s a great example of irony, since only yesterday I had told students to watch out for wet floors. Or perhaps it’s a satisfying end to some long drama, a karmic come-down for a supercilious professor who enjoys berating her students day after day. (Note: that situation would be a total fiction, of course!)
If someone were telling this story aloud, it would be fairly easy to interpret which of these reactions the teller expects us to have. We could discern it from the speaker’s tone of voice, gestures, and body language. But If this story were being related within a fiction, how can we decipher how the author means readers to experience or interpret this event?
The bare sequence of the events as described doesn’t tell us how to react. What does? For one thing, the kind of language used to describe this event would help shape tone for readers. Is my pain and indignity being described, or is the description comically exaggerated?
In addition, readers also might need to consider more context while interpreting tone. For instance, if I hit my head going down, become comatose, and miss my daughter’s wedding, it might be tragic. If the student I most dislike comes to my aid, and I learn to regard him fondly, readers might experience pathos. If I slip and slide all over the room, waving wild arms before crashing, then get up and just start the class as if nothing happened, just rolling my eyes a little, it might be comic.
When reading any good fiction, readers must interpret verbal and contextual cues to figure out just what kind of a story this really is. Those qualities of fiction that evoke particular attitudes and emotional responses in readers work together to produce Tone in fiction. If readers can’t interpret the tone of a scene, or worse, the overall tone of an actual work, they will misunderstand the story that the author is telling.
Keep reading to learn more about how readers can recognize the cues given by an author to establish the Tone of the fiction for readers. I especially want to talk about recognizing comedy and irony, since many students find those especially difficult to recognize in older works where verbal conventions were different.
How to Read Fiction Series
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.