Monday, June 3, 2013

The power of tone

Tone (style or manner of expression) can make a big difference in a passage. Here’s a quick example from the great comic writer P. G. Wodehouse.

Example of the right tone

In one chapter of Jeeves and the Mating Season, the rich and idle Bertie Wooster is at a village concert. Before the first number, the vicar makes a fundraising speech. Bertie, the narrator of the novel, summarizes the speech:

“The Church Organ, he told us frankly, was in a hell of a bad way. For years it had been going around with holes in its socks, doing the Brother-can-you-spare-a-dime stuff, and now it was about due to hand in its dinner pail.”

Bertie’s narration is comical not only because it contains one of Mr. Wodehouse’s wonderful metaphors, but also because of its tone. “Summarizing something in the most incongruous, inappropriate language possible is one of Wodehouse’s most reliable tricks.” (Source) Readers imagine the vicar’s tone and are certain that it was nothing like the flippant, irreverent tone of Bertie’s summary.

Bertie is being flippant not only about vicars and church organs but also about the Great Depression. The three parts of Bertie’s metaphor (holes in one’s socks, handing in one’s dinner pail, and especially the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” evoke the Depression era, which was still a painfully fresh memory when this novel was published (1949).

The Takeaway:  Setting the right tone in your writing is one of those things that is difficult to do but looks easy when it’s done. Bertie Wooster’s summary of the vicar’s speech looks like something you or I could dash off in two or three minutes at the keyboard. But of course you and I know it isn’t. On this blog I have given you many quick-fix ideas; I wish I could give you one for tone. All I can say is that it takes some maturity – gained from a lot of reading, listening and writing – just to acquire a refined sense of tone. And, of course, it takes a lot of rewriting to set the right tone in any given passage or work.

See disclaimer.

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