Tone, Written Speech and Jimi Hendrix

Tone is a slippery thing, as in film making or music it’s only part technical. You can learn what effects pedals Hendrix used, which minor blues scales he relied on, and that will help you get closer to understanding why his ‘Star Spangled Banner’ sounds different that the stately (i.e. boring) version they play before ball games. You can discover that Winston Churchill sought out Germanic (specifically Old English) roots over Romantic ones – think of the difference between a belly full of anger and an abdomen full of ire – but in the end that’s only part of what gives the language of the ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech its punch and immediacy. You can read up on which cameras Kubrick used, which framing ratios he favored, and you’ll start to get a better idea of why The Shinning is so unsettling.

This course will discuss these kind of technical aspects – which, in prose are word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, grammatical and syntactical ‘deviation’ (i.e. when to break the rules of classic composition) – but they’re only part of the overall picture. Many of you will discover that, if you can write well, you already have an innate sense of these technicalities; formalizing them will simply give you a clearer idea of why some lines feel good and some don’t. The goal of this course is not to change how you write, just to illuminate how your writing works when it works.

That, in part, is because there’s more to tone than technique, because technique is all about the writer. Tone is subjective, it’s all about the reader. It’s not how you write, not what you say, but how what you write affects the reader, how they hear what you say.

Tone is your relationship with the reader and, as in any relationship, you – as the writer – can’t argue with the reader about how they feel. (Of course you can, but the end result is like being right after a break-up: you won, but you lost). You can’t say, but that’s not what I meant! This doesn’t mean, though, that all your relationship to the reader is necessarily a G-rated sitcom marriage. It can be, but it can also be sadomasochistic: you can tell your reader to go fuck themselves, if you’ve also given them a reason to stay (e.g. you’re funny, or sexy, or there’s a mystery to be solved, or your writing is just that damn good). Sure, they’ll say, sometimes I really hate that author, but then they’ll sigh and add, but I keep going back for more. The bottom line is this: the reader feels whatever they feel and you can’t change that.

But you can influence it.

That’s the other part of tone: thinking about how what you write will come across to a particular kind of reader, often at the expense of another kind of reader. Hendrix knew that his use of dissonance and distortion would be understood by the Woodstock crowd, not as a failure to master the classical arrangement, but as a commentary, as a musical metaphor for an America – as a state, a philosophy, and a zeitgeist – that was coming apart at the seams. But there’s a whole generation that thought Hendrix wasn’t ‘in’ on the commentary, they thought he was just making noise. Churchill was speaking in front of the House of Commons but he was speaking to the British working class, he understood that the Latinate vocabulary of the aristocracy and of higher education would make him sound removed from the streets where Nazi bombs were landing; he played a role and it paid off, but among other politicians he developed a reputation for being common (a reputation assisted by his renowned love of gin).  And Kubrick deliberately designed a hotel that can’t exist in Euclidean space: in the famous tricycle scene (think: come play with us) the child maps out an impossible floorplan. Watching the film, you sense this, and it creates an unreal feeling, a sense of unease that Kubrick slowly capitalizes on it. It’s the opposite of classical establishing shots – where the viewer is shown where everything is so they can understand the space that the film takes place in – and if you try to watch his film as a realistic portrait of characters, Kubrick’s giving you the finger. If, on the other hand, you’re watching his film as a surreal dream, then you can appreciate what Kubrick’s after.

In next few weeks, in addition to specific technical aspects of tone, we’ll discuss two spectrum of relationships with the reader:  ‘familiar’ to ‘didactic’ and ‘earnest’ to ‘ironic.’ For example: Kubrick and Hendrix are both ‘familiar,’ they assume you know what they’re doing and why. But Hendrix is ‘earnest’ – he really believed his version of The Star Spangled Banner represented his feelings about the world; Kubrick is ‘ironic’ – it’s much harder, near impossible, to figure out what Kubrick believes about the world. Churchill is necessarily didactic – and I use this example because, quite often, didactic writing in fiction (especially dialog) feels like a speech (often, a preachy speech). But his attitude falls somewhere between earnest (i.e. he passionately desired British victory over the Nazis) and ironic (i.e. his speech isn’t a transparent extension of his self, but instead a ‘voice’ calculated for maximum effect).

The kind of relationships we’ll be talking about are built one sentence at a time: halfway between your command of language and the reader’s understanding of it.

Written Speech

Speech – dialog, as recorded in prose – is something that warrants a dozen courses, and so there’s no way to do it justice in one week. But we can’t ignore it, either, because written speech condenses many of the issues of tone to a critical mass. In a very real sense, all narration is recorded speech – someone is telling us a story, even when it’s in the guise of omniscient description. (Just think, if your work succeeds, it will likely one day be an audio book.  Someone will have to read aloud what you wrote, and not just your dialog).

When it comes to actual dialog, word choice and syntax become really important. Unlike film makers, writers can’t rely on the delicate systems of non-verbal cues that make up so much of human communication. Sure, you can try:

‘I think,’ she touched her temple, ‘I think maybe we should take some time.’

But how does ‘she’ touch her temple – erotically, gingerly, in frustration – and for how long does she pause between the first and second ‘think,’ how does the tenor of her voice expand and contract, how does her pitch rise and fall? You can enumerate these things – some writers labor, beautifully and exhaustingly, to do so – but, at the end of the day, what’s on your page is a character, not an actor. At the end of the day, you have to trust your reader.

And that’s the thing about written speech: it is sheet music. The reader is the musician.

Part of this means a kind of surrender: there are shitty musicians out there. Say you write a gorgeous conversation – realistic but lyrical, sparse but deep – that serves as the coda to a short story. It’s wry, and yearning, it makes your chest shiver when you read it back to yourself. It’s perfect. There are some readers out there who will fucking butcher this scene. And some who will, in the theater of their own mind, bring it to life, make it excruciatingly alive, just the way you’d hoped.

It’s like giving a part to Nicolas Cage. You might get Adaptation and you might get Con Air.

Yes. Con Air. Let that sink in. You’re playing Russian roulette with your darlings.

And you can give notes, of course. You can tell your reader about the characters and – in a novel – you can really take your time and develop their speaking patterns. In short stories, there’s less time to build the invisible scaffold around dialog – what the reader knows about the character that makes visualizing conversations possible for them – and, conversely, the conversations are that much more important.  They have to move the plot forward and develop the character. With dialog you can show and tell, at the same time, which is good, because time is short.

Reading and Viewing

Homework. That’s right. Homework.

  1. ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ – No, I’m not that guy, who references everything back to Hemmingway. But this story is one of the most dialog-heavy pieces you’re likely to find (outside of a contest for dialog-only flash).And, to be fair, I’d like you to read this story as much for what’s wrong with it as what’s right with it.

It’s a fairly realistic use of dialog: consider the repetition and overlap, the absence of didactic and expository passages – we don’t often, in our private conversations, catch each other up on our own backstories – and the simplicity of the back and forth pattern.­­­­­

The piece is familiar. The title is already making assumptions: it assumes you know what a ‘white elephant’ is (i.e. a gift which has an upkeep in excess of its value, for example giving a cat-person a puppy, which has to be fed, walked, trained, etc) and that ‘white elephant’ is sometimes used in place of ‘elephant in the room,’ slang for a conspicuous taboo left unmentioned, and also that the ‘operation’ mentioned is an abortion. The piece is also icily ironic; the rift between the minimalist narration and the author is vast and deep. It is difficult to say, exactly, what Hemmingway meant by the piece, and one possible effect is that it means nothing. (Brett Easton Ellis takes all three pages out of this very short book and just runs with them).

  1. Any episode of Gilmore Girls. (I recommend these clips, if you’re not familiar with the show).

In addition to ­balancing out the Hemingway, Gilmore Girls shows a radically different kind of dialog. It’s fairly unrealistic: this is how we’d talk if we had three or four (very clever) writers feeding us an endless river of cultural references and we had multiple ‘takes’ to pull off these lung-draining rants. No one stutters, trips over their words, repeats themselves (except for comic effect), or uses ‘like,’ as a tourette-like interjection. And it’s thoroughly familiar, the references occasionally get explained – again, for comic effect – but almost always move by too quickly for comment. Same with the references to the show’s own considerable domestic mythology. You either keep up or don’t. It’s also fairly earnest, despite the show’s occasional (and painfully good) satirical takes on wealthy WASP culture, the central characters are essentially a dream-ideal version of the mother and daughter bond, as imagined by showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino.

Consider these two dialog modes: realistic, minimalist, ironic vs. stylized, hyperbolic and comic, earnest. Think about your own dialog style and – if you don’t have a ‘style,’ per se, then think about a piece of your own that you like. Where does your piece fall? Is the conversation didactic or familiar or somewhere in between, is it more earnest or ironic? Does your conversation sound like something you might overhear, or is it stylized for a certain effect (comedy, absurdity, tragedy, etc.)?


Critics and authors alike throw around the word ‘realistic’ a lot, but what does that really mean? Real world dialog can be a beautiful thing – a chimera of spontaneous performance and the accumulated history between the people talking – and it can also be a grinding, pointless mess.

  1. The first part of your assignment is to go out and record – to the best of your ability – an actual real world conversation between (at least) two people. Transcribe to prose only the words spoken, leave out character descriptions, gestures, intonations, sighs, laughs, smiles, farts, eye rolls, snorts, etc.

Post your recorded conversation in the forum. Have a look at the conversations posted by your peers. What can you tell about the people speaking? What are you missing?

Even if this isn’t quite a reliable, statistically significant control group, it will still give us some idea of what ‘natural’ speech is like, degree zero for storytelling. Struggling to understand these pieces can help you appreciate what it’s like to be a reader – you don’t have any information except what’s on the page. It’s important to remember that this is often where you reader is starting from when they start your story.

  1. The second part of your assignment is to write a short prose piece (>1,000 words) comprised entirely of dialog: two – or more, if you dare – characters, talking to each other, with zero additional information. No tags – ­­he said, she exclaimed, they shouted – no gestures, nothing but dialog. The conversation does NOT need to be in the realistic style of your ‘recording.’ It can be comedic, absurd, minimalist, or whatever style you like. If you’d like, you many use the dialog – but only the dialog – from a piece you’ve already worked on.

This might be hard. This should be hard.

Remember a few things.

First – the point of this exercise is not to write a successful short piece, the point is to try and figure out how much scaffolding you should add to your dialog and, conversely, to see just how much of the weight of character development you can lift with just dialog. When you comment on your peers’ work, think about what you wanted, as a reader, to know about the people speaking. What do you wish you knew? (It’s unlikely, for example, that you wished you knew a character touched their jaw, or looked down for a moment – but maybe you did!). How much were you able to appreciate reading only the back and forth?

Second – this course is not designed to change the kind (i.e. genre) of writing you want to do, so don’t write a ‘realistic’ piece if that’s not your idea of a good time. In fact, part of the point of these two assignments is to try and demonstrate that almost all dialog writing – whether it’s a conversation in a kitchen or a dungeon or on a spaceship – is stylized to a certain extent. The only important question is, when you stylize dialog – make it less like natural speech and more like spoken prose – what are you accomplishing?

Third – as you’re writing your dialog, think about how the characters speak. What kind of vocabulary do they have? (And do they use it correctly?) Do they have an accent or speak a dialect or pigeon – and are you going to try and represent that? Do they use regional idioms? (Think, for example, of what they call a large sandwich – a hoagie, a hero, a grinder, a sub…) What kind of syntax do the use, do they speak in complete sentences, or use implicit parts of speech. Do they reference contemporary culture and – if so – does the person they’re speaking to get these references? (And will the reader?). As the conversation evolves, how does the way your characters talk change? If they get angry, or sad, or excited, to they grow verbose, or terse, or profane?

Okay. Good luck and good night.

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Narration and Tone

Genre fiction, broadly speaking, is a kind of writing that privileges plot over writing style. The narration is frequently a free-indirect style, which describes both characters’ actions and thoughts, but also is omniscient—describing events that no character can see. The narration also withholds information, purely to serve the plot—as a movie or TV show would cut away from a scene, right before we see the killer’s face, genre fiction deliberately manipulates the plot to artificially create suspense. The ‘narrator’ knows things the reader doesn’t, and withholds those things for no other reason than entertainment. But genre fiction is fun! Michael Crichton, Stephen King, Dean Koontz—the frequently write in a way that is largely transparent; their language is low on metaphorical import, high on active description. And you read them, not for the poetry of their language, but for the power of their plots. What’s that mysterious orb at the bottom of the ocean? Who lives in the dark tower on the horizon? Is it aliens or the rapture? (If it’s Koontz, it’s the rapture. Spoiler alert). But there is a disposable hollowness to a lot of genre writing. You do not often find people going back to re-read them. That’s why they are sold in airports, next to the single-use neck pillow and bottled water. No offense, genre fiction, but you’re a one night stand, not a relationship. This is not to say there is nothing between Jurassic Park and Ulysses. There is a vast and exciting world of fiction that approaches plot-driven stories—about murder and crime, the supernatural, science fiction, etc.—with an eye to the poetic possibilities of language. Genre with heart, so to speak. The difference is in the narration. Pick up a book and you can pretty much tell. The question is, what kind of narration do you want?

Free-indirect third person is a popular technique—almost the default of modern literary fiction—that allows you to describe actions and set scenes, while also ‘peering’ into the heads of your characters, but also retaining some agency to make commentary or wax poetic as an authorial voice. But there are other options. The first person, which is challenging, is the most psychologically acute way to sketch a character. And I recommend you both do some first person writing, even if only as an exercise that never leaves your laptop or sketchbook. The first person can be tiring to write, especially in action scenes, because you need to keep one hand on your character’s tone of voice and the other hand on the events. You can’t just say what happened, you have to describe them the way your character would see them. The payoff is that your reader truly gets inside the head of your creation, for better and worse. Here’s a quick example, from Gore Vidal’s very funny and thoroughly exhausting Myra Breckinridge:

I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess. Clad only in my garter belt and one dress shield, I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for “why” or “because.” Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.

Gore Vidal keeps this up for the entire novel. It is a brilliant tour-de-force that can be a little taxing, like have someone as bombastic and excessive as Myra inside your head for hundreds of pages. But Vidal’s novel accomplishes a massive amount of psychological mapping, something that simply would not be possible in the third person. And, of course, there are subtler first person narratives. The point is, you as the author have to truly disappear into the voice of your character to write effective first person fiction. There is also the strange and quite rare second-person, of which I and almost no-one else is a fan. Here’s the opening to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is completely unfamiliar, although the details are a little fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder…

McInerney also keeps this up for the entire novel, and the effect is somehow tranfixing: the reader ends up talking to their own self, in a voice that is not their own, but that—over the course of the novel—seems to become their own. If first person gives you an intimate look into a character’s psyche, second person puts you behind the wheel. It’s a strange effect, and difficult to pull off and sustain. But, if you find that you have a story to tell and it won’t fit into first or second person, maybe—just for fun—give this one a shot. And give McInerney a read if you haven’t. It’s worth it. Lastly, I want to say that—regardless of the formal type of narration you use—the biggest impact on your work will be the style of your narration. Will it be understated, cool and ironic, or bombastic and comical? 


  • Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal
  • Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney 


Choose an opening of a work and rewrite the first 500 or so words in a different tone. If the tone is comical, make it serious. If the tone is removed or distant, go closer into the character’s perspective. If the pace is fast, try slowing it down and vice versa. When you’ve rewritten the opening, look for another 500 words section of the narrative and rewrite the tone in the same manner as your new opening. Lay the rewritten sections aside for a few days. When you come back to the rewritten sections, ask yourself honestly if the original tone or the revised tone are working better. 

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Tone in Openings and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches towards traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him fie dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.

This is the opening to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, one of those notorious novels that few people read anymore (the movie is more popular, and worth watching, but falls considerably short of the truly cold horror of Ellis’s prose). And, speaking of prose, consider Ellis’s tone in this near-breathless opening paragraph (which is a single, near-run-on sentence). The opening words, referencing Dante’s Inferno, describes an improbably literate piece of graffiti that is ‘scrawled in blood,’ – it’s only a fraction of a second later that the reader’s mind adjusts the mental image between Dante scrawled in blood and Dante scrawled in blood red lettering. It’s a subtle shift, but its indicative of Ellis’s prose style and also foreshadows his general method – implying something horrible and then dialing it back (including the pervasive ‘it was all a dream’ move). Also crammed into this opening sentence is Ellis’s unyielding realist familiarity; when he writes about Los Angeles and New York he often uses real places and locations, the names of real restaurants alongside fake ones, and so forth. The reader often struggles to figure out the metaphorical import of his references (i.e. ‘is this a cool part of town?’ and ‘is that a real artist or movie being mocked?’). This can make Ellis’s novels seem very real and knowing – and makes the horror concealed in them so much more terrifying, because they take place in a very realistic setting – and it also allows the readers to feel a sense of cool and knowing superiority if they are ‘in’ on his references. Finally, Ellis’s icy and amoral reportage: the cab driver is ‘black, not American’ and a wealthy banker – whose race is not given, which in Ellis usually means he’s wealthy and white – pays him simply to turn up the radio. The wild inequalities of race, gender, and nationality are more subtly implied here than elsewhere in the book, but – back to the point – Ellis simply describes the exchange without comment. Timothy Price does not ‘dickishly’ or ‘imperiously’ or ‘callously’ hand the cab driver the money, he simply does it. Judgement is on the reader. This is the effect of Ellis’s careful and sparing use of adjectives, which he inherits from Hemingway and even more-so from Edith Wharton. There’s more to say – always more to say, of course – about this opening, but I think you’ve got some idea of how heavily you can mine the first paragraph (or sentence) of a novel or short story for import.



  1. Your first assignment is to find an opening – to a short story or novel – that you find particularly interesting. It can frustrate you or inspire you, but – in either case – post it below along with a brief summary of your thoughts on the opening. How does it work? What does it do? How does it help to prepare (or mislead) the reader for what is to come?
  2. Choose an opening from your own work, 1000 words or less, and revise it with an eye toward the features that most move you in the above opening.
  3. Feel free to post your opening below for sharing with course mates.

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