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Types of Tones Used in Narrative Essays

by Michael Stratford, studioD

Tone is an author's attitude towards his subject and audience (see References 1). Since a narrative essay (see References 2) is essentially an autobiographical story making a point, the tone of the essay depends upon the emotional investment, or lack of it, the author demonstrates. The types of tone in a narrative essay are divided by emotional intensity: some types are negatively passionate, some are positively emotionally charged and some are detached.

Detached types of tone

An author may have an emotional investment in a narrative for which s/he purposefully demonstrates little emotion. Types of tone for these essays are detached. These tones include reflective, which is contemplative and introspective; factual, which is coldly logical and unbiased; and emotionally estranged, which demonstrates an impartial attitude, indicating a disconnect between heart and mind. Joan Didion's "On Self Respect" is a narrative essay of the detached tone type; she recounts earlier devastating failures and dissects what they mean to her and others with aloofness and emotional restraint.

Positive Emotionally Charged Tones

Tone reveals emotion invested in an author's attitude, and emotionally charged types of tone for narrative essays are more numerous. Positive types of tone for essays include cheerful, compassionate, humorous, strongly nostalgic, optimistic, serene and whimsical. These are the types of tones found in many narrative essays recounting favorite moments, great vacations, best friends or good times. The reflective nature of these essays may include deep nostalgia tempered by wistfulness. Thoreau's "Why I Went to the Woods," for example, is charged with his joy in establishing a connection to nature.

Emotionally Negative Types of Tone

Another frequent tone type encountered in narrative essays will be emotionally negative tones, which include angry, bewildered, fearful, scornful, sarcastic, unsympathetic and vitriolic attitudes. Stories of personal defeat and failed attempts are rife in the world of narrative essays, since story-telling is an effective processing method for personal tragedy. Examples of these tone types include E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake,"which cloaks his fear of death in a tale of a family outing, and Andre Dubus' "Lights of the Long Night," his bitter account of a crippling accident.

Mixed Tones

Because a narrative essay's focus is a plot written as if it were a short story, the emotional intensity of the essay's tone may shift. Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" at first maintains a detached tone describing the native settings. Orwell shifts to excitement and dread as he details the shooting of the beast; he ends with a tone of reflective shame made apparent by the statement: "I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool."

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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