Tone is the overall feel of a story. Does this sound depressed, joyful, or hopeful?
Beyond that, though, tone can determine the audience for your story. One of the main differences between a middle grade and YA, or a YA and an adult story, is the tone of the piece. Tone reflects the author’s attitude toward the characters, the plot, the setting, and the theme of the story.
One of the easiest ways to signal tone and, as a result, audience is to control your sentence structure. A simplistic explanation would say that simple sentences are for younger audiences, while longer sentences are for older. But that’s too simplistic.
Tone of a Picture Book
It is true that picture book language is simpler, but it’s not necessarily simplistic.
Clarity is paramount. You can—I love to do this—interrupt a sentence with another sentence. When I was teaching college level courses and taught this sentence construction, one student came back to class and reported that her three year old daughter had done this. Even young kids talk in complex ways. But the connections from sentence to sentence must be absolutely clear. Using lots of introductory clauses, even when well used, can be confusing. Instead, be simple and direct. Make sure everything is clear.
Tone of a Middle Grade
The tone here is more complex and respectful. Never take the tone of talking down to a “little kid.” For sentence structures, you’ll still want to be clear, easy to understand. You can take more detours, for example, explaining a character’s motivations, or describing in more detail. But the tone is honest, open, fun, entertaining. Simple sentences are complemented by compound and complex sentences.
Tone of a Young Adult (YA)
The difference here is that, besides a full range of sentence structures, the attitude is more irreverent, questioning, “edgy.” This may mean experimentation with sentence fragments, POV, invented words, jargon—including cursing, lists, long sentences with plenty of semi-colons. The mandate here is freshness, in content and in presentation (your sentences).
Tone of an Adult Story or Novel
The adult story has sophistication, nuances and maturity as hallmarks of its tone, regardless of genre. The full range of sentence structures can and should be present and you may use whatever is appropriate for your story. For a brush-up on sentence structure possibilities, read this book.
This isn’t a call for simple sentences for picture books.
I write picture books.
I write easy picture books
I write boring picture books.
This is a call to make sure that in the tone—especially in how sentences affect tone—is a crucial part of your decision making as you write a story. Examine your typical sentence structures and shake it up some!