I'm going to be honest, tone is something I struggle with in my writing. In some scenes, it can be a huge stumbling block for me. I get how it works, but sometimes I just can't find it. Those days are over (hopefully) because now I have a post (this one) written out that explains it to myself, which will be better and more accurate than trying to pull it from my head when I'm already confused. So if you've had trouble with tone, no worries, this article nails it all down.
I'm going to cover what tone is, how to create it, how to keep control of it, what to do if your tone goes sour, and how to actually change or juggle tones in a scene. I'll also talk about how the right tone will let you get away with just about anything.
Maybe you are like how I use to be: thinking that tone isn't really something you need to worry yourself over. It'll just happen, you think. You'll just write your story and whatever the tone is, is whatever the tone is. It's what came naturally.
It's not that this attitude is wrong--I've seen plenty of published writing where the author couldn't have paid tone any mind--it's that you are cutting yourself and your writing short by ignoring tone. Maybe you already have great writing skills. Cool. But you can make them better by paying attention and mastering the element of tone.
I used to lump tone and voice together. While they overlap and play off each other, they aren't the same thing. To understand voice better and how it works, go visit my article on how to create it (remember, what the character thinks/says + how she thinks/says it = voice). Tone is different.
Tone has to do with feelings. It's the attitude the author, narrator, or viewpoint character has in the passage. You can have a sympathetic tone, a humorous tone, an arrogant tone, or a sarcastic tone.
There are really three components that create tone.
Creating and Controlling Tone
Consistent (Emotional) Beats"Beat" can be a somewhat ambiguous term in the writing world--like so many others. But here, today in this post, "beat" means a small, tiny, little moment in a story. It can be a line of dialogue, an action your character takes, or a description, for example. It's that tiny, little moment or micro-concept in a story. It can be as short as a few words. When I say "emotional beat," a mean a beat the evokes a specific emotion. A humor beat. A sympathetic beat. A romance beat. Here is what a romantic beat might look like:
As she handed him the snow globe, their fingers accidentally touched.
In order to create the right tone you want, you need the right beats. You need at least three beats of that tone to establish that tone, then you just need enough to keep it going.
So if we are going to go with creating a romantic tone, you'd want to add a few more romantic beats, preferably each one carrying more intensity. So somewhere in the opening of our scene, we might add these beats:
He wanted to run his hand through her hair.
She stared deep into his eyes.
They were so close, he could count her freckles.
Three beats establish the tone. If you need to sustain that tone throughout the scene, you'll need to continue putting beats in that speak to that tone. If you want to keep the scene romantic, you need to continue feeding in romantic beats. Just make sure there is some variety or increased intensity so it doesn't become stale. For example, you wouldn't want kissing to be the only beat you use for a romantic tone. After the first three kisses, it's going to lose its impact, unless you can vary and twist the kisses so that each one feels fresh. Don't forget that the setting can add to the sense of romance too. That could give you some variety to pull from. Other than physicality, conversation and internal understanding can be romantic too.
An emotional beat can either be:
1. a micro-concept (meaning the beat's content/concept) of that tone
2. some content rendered in a way that evokes those emotions
How Content Creates ToneSo the first option has to do with content. It's easier to create romantic micro-concepts when the content of the scene itself is set-up for them. If I need a scene to feel romantic, it will be easier to do that if my characters are alone at a beautiful outlook than if they are driving a garbage truck together. Yeah, the latter can still be done, but you are going to have to work at least twice as hard to create the romantic beats you need in order to have a romantic tone, because not only is a garbage truck not romantic, it actually takes away from any kind romantic moment you have, so you have to work extra hard to compensate that. If you have a scene that you want to feel eerie, it'll probably be better to try to set it in a cemetery, morgue, or abandoned house, than a grocery store, arcade, or fast food place.
The same thing is true of other parts of storytelling. If you have a plot point where the characters' goal for the scene is to disable a bomb, it will naturally lend itself to beats of fear and anticipation better than a scene where the protagonist is getting the mail out of her mailbox.
So if it's particularly important that your scene has a specific tone, you might want to look at what you have set-up in the scene and see if it gives you some good content to work with. If not, you might want to consider making changes. Swap the setting, or add an element that will play into your chosen tone. Or, if you won't make changes, you'll have to work on how it's rendered (I'll talk about that in the next section).
The content of your actual beats can create tone. For example here are some content options that can create a romantic tone:
The context of the scene (i.e. two characters who are attracted to one another) and/or the set-up (a stroll together on Valentine's Day) will make just a straight-up content beat like "He kissed her," romantic. Again, that can be because of the context. If we came into the scene, and we knew it was a father talking to his young daughter the sentence "He kissed her" would have a totally different tone because we now have a different context (and therefore beat), than our two romantic characters. So it's not just the sentence itself, it's the context of the sentence too.
If you have the right context and set-up, finding the right beat for your tone can be as simple as "They held hands."
But sometimes you can't or won't have the ideal set-up, or sometimes you want to create something fresh, so having the cliche Valentine's Day stroll we've seen a hundred times isn't going to cut it. You want and need something like cleaning out horse stalls to be romantic. Or sewing up a battle wound to have sexual tension.
Sometimes you actually want your tone to be different or even at odds with the content (more on that later).
Or maybe you do have a great set-up, but you just want to take it to the next level to make the tone even stronger.
That's when you focus on how content is rendered.
How Rendering Creates Tone
The truth is, you can get away with just about anything if you have the right tone. Even if the content seems weird or frankly stupid. Imagine how things might have been different if Tolkien pitched his novel by saying it was about two midgets taking a magic ring to the Crack. I mean, really? I've talked to people who thought the character concepts for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-man sounded ridiculous and dumb--they had real potential to be total flops. But Marvel is a master at understanding and using tone. They have specific, consistent tones in their movies. Disney also has a very particular, strong grip on the tone of their movies--they're masters at it. (But let's not forget, Marvel is owned by Disney).
On the other hand, even a particularly awesome concept can suck if the tone does. The perfect content can stink worse than that romantic garbage truck if it's rendered improperly or crappily. I don't think you'll get far into film adaptations to find some of the stuff I'm talking about.
Sure, if the context and set-up are handled well, you can often create tone with straightforward beats ("He kissed her"). Sometimes that's enough and it's good. Bad tone happens when you render it poorly. It's like saying "He kissed her like he did his Big Macs"--that's not a romantic beat. It's a humor beat, which is in this case, the wrong beat (more on that later).
If by some chance you still think tone isn't important, go watch Jurassic Park's dinosaurs eating people on mute while listening to Yo Gabba Gabba's "There's a Party in my Tummy." Tone has the potential to change everything.
Word Choice, Syntax, Comparisons, and DetailsThe way you tell the scene affects tone. Pay attention to word choice, connotation, and the context of the words you are using. For example, describing a character as "plump" will affect the tone differently than describing a character as a "fat-butt." Saying that a forest is "dark and calm" will evoke a different feeling than saying that a forest is "shadowy and silent." (note that the concept is a dark, quiet forest, the way its described comes through word choice).
Word choice can be crucial in establishing tone. Let's go back to the romantic tone, since that's what I talked about earlier. Which description sounds more romantic?
She had a thin neck, like a toothpick.
She had a soft, slender neck, like a dancer's.
Syntax has to do with how the sentence is structured. Different structures carry different rhythms and emphases. Compare these two sentences to see what I mean.
There were cows: fat cows.
Cows grazed in the pasture, bathing in the sun and soaking in the fresh air.
Neither sentence is necessarily wrong. Some would argue that the second sentence is better, but really, it depends on the tone you are going for. If you are working with a frank, to-the-point, or humorous tone, the first sentence is a good option. If you want to create a more relaxing or charming tone, you might want to go with the second sentence. The second is a good sentence for making your reader want to visit your setting. The first might be a good sentence to convey your protagonist's disappointment with the setting.
Now if the content and the set-up of the scene don't naturally cater to the tone you want, you are going to have to do some heavy lifting in the rendering part of tone. How you write the scene becomes crucial and more challenging. But it can be done. It may not always reach the same heights as our Valentine's Day stroll, but we can get it closer to it, and it's more likely to reach those heights if we work hard at the prose. So pay attention to word choice and syntax, but I'll also give you a little cheat: comparisons.
Here is why comparisons (metaphors and similes) work so well. It can lift the reader from a so-so set-up to an ideal one, without actually moving the scene or changing its content. Do you need a trip to a mailbox to sound scary? Infuse it with creepy comparisons. The mailboxes are compared to headstones. A shadow looks like a raven frozen in flight. You're able to slide in that creepy atmosphere and set-up, even if the scene doesn't actually have it in it. If you want, you can even create an extended metaphor, comparing the whole journey to the mailbox to a trip through a graveyard. In that way, you are giving the trip to the mailbox a different context, a creepy one.
Now, you can overdo this so that it sounds ridiculous and purple-prosey. You can make one or two comparisons obvious ("The mailbox looked like a headstone"), but it's likely the others need to be more subtle, otherwise it becomes comical and the reader is laughing at your supposed scary tone. You can be subtle by finding verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that imply the comparison without stating it straight out. In a poem I wrote in college, I compared dancing on pointe shoes to the flight of birds, but I wasn't direct about it until the last line. Instead I used verbs like "soar," "glide," and for the opposite feeling, I used the verb "caged." You can do similar things to create the tone you need. You can also make comparisons less noticeable by decreasing their emphasis in the structure of the prose. To understand more about how to create (and therefore not create) emphasis in the actual written word, check out this book called Style. I also touch on it a bit in my humor blog post.
You can also render the trip to the mailbox a little more scary by picking details that will feed into that tone instead of ones that don't. So instead of describing the daisies out front, tell the reader there is a spider web in the mailbox that the character has to reach through to pull the mail out. Instead of noticing a friendly neighbor with a smile, notice a neighbor carrying an axe. When it comes to these details, I guess you really start blurring parts 1 and 2 of tone I outlined above, because it is simultaneously content and rendering.
Even if the set-up and scene content is ideal to create the tone you want, you can use these tools to amplify them, but again, don't overdo it so that it becomes purple-prosey. Just sprinkle it in. It is possible for a tone to be too overbearing, sucking up all the attention like a black hole if it's too loud at the wrong time. Some scenes call for simple and straightforward. You don't want your scene to be hormtonal.
On the flip side, you can do things like this to downplay what might be a natural tone, given the set-up. You can make the Valentine's stroll unromantic. When Katinss first kisses Peeta in The Hunger Games, the text doesn't have a romantic tone, despite the romantic set-up (Katniss is trying to be romantic for the t.v. to get sponsors). They kiss and cuddle, but it's overshadowed by the fact Katniss doesn't like it. She doesn't like her first few kisses with Peeta. The tone is actually different from the surface content.
Viewpoint Character's Mood or Narrator's Mood?
While tone and voice aren't the same thing, they can overlap and affect each other. Your point of view character has a particular voice, but that voice can be rendered in different tones.
Tone is tinted by and can come from the viewpoint character's mood (or the narrator's). If your viewpoint character is angry, she's going to view a scene differently than if she's joyful. There is going to be a different tone.
When you are writing a passage from a character's viewpoint, and you are writing at a deep level of point of view penetration, the tone of the piece always comes from that viewpoint character. This is why it's easy to mix-up tone with character voice--because they sometimes seem one in the same. They come out of each other. Your character's voice affects the tone of the passage. Or, if you want to work with tone first, the tone affects your character's voice. They affect each other, but they aren't the same thing. In a first-person story, tone and character voice almost always go hand-in-hand.
The more distant you are on the point of view penetration spectrum, the more leeway you have with differentiating the tone from your character's voice and attitude. You can still keep them the same, if you want, but you don't have to. If the tone deviates from the character's, you are beginning to deviate the reader's experience from the character's experience. This is a great tactic for writing about unlikeable people. The further out you go on the point of view penetration spectrum, the more you can deviate tone from character. So, for example, your viewpoint character might be having a rotten day and feeling miserable, but the tone of the narrator conveys it in a humorous way. It's funny that your protagonist missed the bus and forgot her lunch.
This is why tone and character voice can't be defined as the same thing.
So again, the deeper in viewpoint you are, the more tone will be affected by the viewpoint character. The more distant from viewpoint you are, the more freedom you have in tone.
your character's emotional range. If you don't remember what that means, you might want to revisit that post. If you have a character that tends to be very happy, you're more likely to have joyfully-toned scenes than a character whose dominating emotion is anxiety or arrogance. Got it?
If the tone is different than the character's mood, then it's coming from the attitude of the narrator (or even in some cases, the actual author) of the story, which gives you more options to play with. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean it's better. It depends on how you want the reader to feel, and how closely you want their feelings to mirror the character's. Sometimes, they can be striking opposites.
Now, you might think this only relates to third-person stories, but I think it works still in first-person stories to some degree. If your character is looking back on an event, her present self might color the event with a different tone than what she felt at that time. But she's still the narrator, so it's simultaneously the character's and narrator's attitude--they're one in the same.
Clear as mud? Great.
Just kidding. But it's about to get more confusing, so, if you are confused, you might want to skip to the next section, if you want. If you kind of get what I'm saying, keep reading.
Now, remember when I said that when in deep point of view penetration that tone is always affected by the character's mood? That's true . . . but . . . you can actually undercut your character's attitude to create a tone that somewhat differs from the character's emotions. Stay with me. It's called subtext, and you can read how to create it here. For example, let's say our main character is having a rotten day--but we want it to be funny to the audience, while still being deep in his viewpoint. We can use subtext to have the character undercut his own thoughts and feelings. This is also how you can get your tone to be different from the character's attitude when writing in first-person.
In Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is told in first-person, we have our protagonist, Greg, who is often dealing with less than (his idea of) favorable circumstances. But we don't feel upset and annoyed like Greg, instead we are laughing at the tone of the book. Jeff Kinney creates this effect by undercutting Greg's emotional dilemmas with subtext (which does wonders for humor in general). Greg is blind to many of his own flaws, but the reader isn't. How blind Greg is in contrast to how obvious it is for the reader is often what makes the books hilarious.
Don't be Tone DeafAs you're working with creating and controlling tone, you'll likely end up writing a few beats that kill it. They won't belong. They won't belong because they don't fit the tone you are trying to create (i.e. "He kissed her like he did his Big Macs").
They might not fit in content or they might not fit in the way they are rendered.
This is not to say that everything in your scene has to add to and sustain your tone. You can have things that are neutral or that veer off into other emotions, but you don't want beats that take away or destroy your intended tone.
Your problem beat could be that sentence in our romance scene that describes gooey gum stuck under the table at a restaurant. Maybe we thought the concept was so funny that we wanted to include it, but it's the only humor beat in the whole scene. It doesn't fit the tone. In fact, it interrupts and hurts it.
Often getting some space from the passage you've written will help you identify these culprits. The other option is to be aware of the emotional beats you've established when you are writing, so that you don't put one in that doesn't belong. If in doubt, you can always get feedback from a trusted reader. For truly bad tonal beats, a good reader should be able to pick them out.
Now, this is not to say that you can't change the tone throughout a scene. You can. You just have to do it the right way, which I'll explain in the next section.
Another problem can come up when the tone is too vague. I was watching a movie last week, and throughout it there were beats that I couldn't tell if they were supposed to be funny or sad. It wasn't that it flipped between those tones, it was that the beats couldn't decide which they were. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or frown. So I started listening to the movie score, because that usually cues the audience in (it adds to tone). It didn't help. There really wasn't much of a score. Maybe you can create this effect intentionally, but here in this movie, I don't think it was intentional, and it didn't work.
Changing Tone Mid-scene
Some people may have been reading this, nodding, and subconsciously thinking that because we need to establish a tone, that that means we need to keep that tone throughout a single scene. This isn't the case. You should definitely establish (three beats) and sustain (follow-up beats) a particular tone long enough to ground the reader in it. But feel free to establish and sustain a new tone if the scene calls for it.
Now, this shift in tone can't happen out of the blue, just because you want it to. Something has to happen in the scene, in the content, that opens the door for the tone to change (example: your character just found out her uncle died; example: Your character just realized her partner isn't as invested in their relationship as she is). It can be big and external, or small and internal, or anything in between. It just needs to be something. If you are in deep point of view penetration, there has to be a reason your character's attitude shifts, even if it's something that only happens in his own head.
Then you can establish a new tone with three beats, and sustain it with more--adding intensity or variety in the beats to keep it from going stale. If you do this all with care, and it fits your character's (or narrator's) internal workings, you can shift back and forth between previously established tones in a scene. So our romantic scene might shift to humor, but then get a beat or two of romance again, and then humor again. Shifting between tones can create complexity, just take care how you handle it or your reader will have tonal whiplash. (Then again, if you have a character that is feeling two very intense emotions at the same time, he might be experiencing emotional whiplash himself, and if you want the reader to experience that . . . well . . . if done with care, even tonal whiplash can work, but be wise). Just remember that complex tones in a scene aren't necessarily better. Make sure they aren't unintentionally hormtonal. While they can be powerful when done well and used well, they can be chaotic and create confusion in the reader if they don't belong. Again, be wise.
The point is, you can shift through multiple tones throughout a scene, and doing so might give you the "movement" your scene needs. But some scenes are best written with one tone.
And that's what you need to know about how tone works. See how much ground we covered? This is an entire tool that we could be mastering in our pursuit of writing better stories, instead of one we are neglecting. If you are looking for a new way to grow and improve as a writer, you might want to practice creating and controlling tone with intention.