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Tuesday, January 18

Leave a Message at the Tone: Setting the Right Tone for Your Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A reader asked...
I would love to see a post about tone. I heard a song on the radio that really spoke to me- it instantly brought to mind my novel and I thought "THIS is how I want people to feel when they read this novel!" But I'm having a hard time figuring out how to infuse that feeling into the words. The song was very tragic, but hopeful at the same time.
I love this question, because it's something I don't think I've talked about before, and it's a great topic. Tone is an important part of any story. The wrong tone can ruin the mood and steal the thunder away from the words.

There's a great moment in the beginning of  Pirates of the Caribbean where Captain Jack Sparrow is standing in the crow's nest as his ship pulls into port. It has this great adventure feel, the mighty pirate surveying the land kinda thing. Then, as the camera pulls away, you see his ship is sinking and it goes under just as he reaches the dock and steps off.

It's silly, it's comical, and it immediately sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

That first scene is over the top, but they do it because they want you to know that you can't really take anything very seriously, and to just hang on and enjoy the ride. It's all about fun. It's not a realistic look at pirates. You know what you're going to get after that, so anytime they get a little silly you just roll with it.

But back to the question... infusing your work with tone. In this case, adding the tragic, yet hopeful tone of a song.


Look for images that are tragic and hopeful. Flowers blooming in garbage. Kids playing in the ruins of a bombed out apartment building. Think about things that convey hope and overlay them on tragedy. Sunbeams breaking through the dark clouds. Determination on someone's face. Whatever suits your setting and story. Listen to the song and see what they did to achieve this feeling in you. Don't copy them of course, but study their word and imagery choices. If it's just in the music, identify what about that sound evoked that feeling. What sounds can you use in the story that give the same feeling?

Even the words you choose can convey tone What words are usually associated with the emotion you want to create? Crying is often about sadness, yet people cry when they're happy all the time. Crying and smiling sets a mood that's different from crying and frowning. You can try juxtaposing emotional keywords so they evoke the tone and mood you want.


How you put those words together also matters. Snappy banter is often fast-paced, short sentences, little or no exposition or tags with the dialog. It's light, funny, playful, and it feels that way. Anger is often portrayed with choppy sentences, sudden starts and stops as people yell, then pause to think and yell again. Sadness is often drawn out, longer slower sentences and lots of internalization. Also think about the beats of the words, like poetry. Ending on a downbeat can signify sadness, while an upbeat can indicate happiness.  


What your characters think and feel will also help set a tone. No matter how serious a situation is, if the POV is flippant and blows it off, it won't feel very serious. Same as a character being overly dramatic in a situation that clearly doesn't call for it can feel melodramatic. If the character feels one way, and the rest of the scene backs that up, then you can help create that same feeling in your reader. 

Tone can set a mood and really turn your setting into more than just scenery. Think of it as the soundtrack if your story. What kind of music do you want playing in the background?

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Can I add paying attention to how your body reacts to emotion? Think about where you feel your different emotions... it's not all in the head or in the chest. Sometimes an emotion makes you feel tight, constricted like you can't breathe. Or maybe sick to your stomach, like you're going to vomit. Others make you feel heavy with immovable limbs. Etc.

    Really great points, Janice! Especially paying attention to word choice. For me, nothing kills emotion faster than using the wrong verb with the wrong emotion! Guilt doesn't burst, soar, or tingle so much as it creeps, chews or claws through you. Great post!

  2. The point about the first `Pirates' movie was really great for me because I'm working on a comical story at the moment. I'll have to look for ways to highlight the idea `don't take this too seriously.' :)

    I love your imagery example of the kids playing in the burned out shelter. That does have a sense of hope with sorrow because it highlights how resilient we (I mean the human race) are.

  3. Cool post, Janice. Very nice.

  4. Great post! This was something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

  5. Great points, Janice! I also feel that pacing and momentum play a big role in setting the right tone.

    Similarly to sentence structure (short and snappy vs. long and reflective), overall pacing of the action of the story aids in setting tone for the novel. Long paragraphs heavy with descriptors will slow down the pacing of a novel and typically belong in character-driven stories rather than the short paragraphs, even short chapters, that generally characterize suspense stories.

    Great examples of imagery!

  6. Lovely post. I have a list of images at the top of my "plot in progress" I am working on that symbolize the themes and tone I am going for. While I made many of these up myself, I have to give a shout out to Angela's Bookshelf Muse Writer's Thesaurus for Symbolism

  7. This is a great post! Tone is really important to me with the novel I'm writing now so I appreciate the tips!

  8. This seems to me a very good attempt at capturing something abstract, but which must emerge somehow from the text, in part at least.

    I would suggest also paying attention to degree of change in the factors listed, and how a relatively small change might get the desired effect, but leave scope for more such later.

  9. You are an amazing teacher. You answered that question in a way that totally relates to my WIP. Thank you!

  10. Love that scene in Pirates! It was on television this weekend and I happened to rewatch that part. So many brilliant moments in just a couple minutes.

    My favorite?

    Jack doffing his hat to the the hanging pirates. Tells us this story is going to be dark, yet irreverent. We get a sense of consequence immediately. Jack knows that he is only a couple steps ahead of the noose, but he's willing to pay the price for the freedom he desires. "A short life, but a merry one." Not only does he mock authority, but death itself.

    In that brief moment we learn not only about the character, but get a glimpse into the whole spirit of the film. Great stuff!

    Good post!

  11. Thanks so much for this! I can't wait to start putting it into practice. As always, you are a great teacher!

  12. Deborah: Great tip, thanks! Emotional cues really do add a lot to the tone of the scene.

    Chicory: Thanks! Humor is such a tough balance, but the payoff is worth it. Good luck with yours :) I'm glad this helped a little to get you there.

    Juliette: Thanks! I think it was in a conversation with you where that Pirates thing first came up. There's a good chance you're the one who mentioned it, LOL.

    Jane: Thanks!

    Mesummer: Another great tip. Pacing does do a lot for tone. :) Do I go back and edit these tips in or just do another post later on tone again? Hmmm...

    Rachel: Angela's site is fantastic and filled with helpful information. Thanks for the link! Her setting thesauruses are great as well.

    Mallory: Happy to help :) I'm glad the question was asked. You guys come up with the best topics.

    Porky: Even more great tips. It's that small changes that affect so much of writing. There might be a post in that itself! Been a while since I've talked about the subtleties of writing. Thanks!

    Tracey: Aw, thanks so much! Glad I could help.

    Sarah: That was a great scene. Deep is such an amazing action. I wonder how much of that he brought to the character and how much was direction?

    Candace: Most welcome :)