Wednesday, August 28, 2019

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

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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 a big adventure feel, the mighty pirate surveying his domain. 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. We’re not taking ourselves too seriously, here.

Which is exactly right for a movie based on a ride at Disney World.

The scene is a bit over the top, but but it informs viewers right away to just go with it and enjoy the ride. It's all about fun, not a realistic look at pirates. You know what you're going to get after that, so anytime the movies gets a little silly you accept it.

The tone you set in your novel will inform your readers the same way. Start out silly when your novel gets dark after Chapter One, and readers won’t be happy with the sudden switch. Start dark when it’s a light, fun romp and your readers won’t ever get past the first scene.

(Here's more on How the Wrong Tone Can Change Your Whole Novel)

Here are some ways to set the right tone in your novel.

Use the Right Imagery for the Tone You Want to Evoke

Description is a big part of any novel, and the images you choose set not only the scene, but the tone of that scene.

For example, if you want tragic, yet hopeful, use images with contradictory details that support that. 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.

If you’re going for scary or foreboding, use images with dark connotations. Shadows and night, decay, items deteriorating. Perhaps show things on the edge of falling, such as a stack of dishes about to topple over, or pictures hanging on a bent nail. The suggestion of something about to break.

(Here’s more on Intuiting Your Character: A Guided Imagery Exercise)

Choose Words that Convey the Emotion You Need

Writing is word painting, so make the most of the language. What words are usually associated with the emotion you want to create? But don’t just pull the first words that come to mind—everyone uses those. Dig deeper and find emotional words that best suit your story and characters.

Crying is typically associated with sadness, yet people cry when they're happy, scared, or frustrated as well. Crying while smiling sets a mood that's different from crying while frowning. “She wanted to die” evokes a different emotional tone than “She gripped the knife and held it to her wrist.” The second version creates a much more visceral reaction.

You can also try juxtaposing emotional keywords so they evoke the tone and mood you want. A man in love might think about what a wonderful day it is, even though it’s a torrential downpour and he’s soaked to the skin. But if that storm reminds him of his love, that rain may patter and splash instead of pound and drench.

(Here’s more on Do You Think He Likes Me? Conveying Emotions in Your Novel)

Choose a Rhythm that Supports the Tone

The rhythm of the sentences can affect the emotional state of readers as they read. When sentences speed up, so does their heart. When sentences are long and languid, they lull readers as well.

Banter is typically fast-paced with short sentences, using little or no exposition or tags with the dialogue. It's light and funny, and it sets a tone of teasing or playfulness.

Anger is often conveyed with choppy sentences, sudden starts and stops as people yell, then pause to think and yell again. It’s rough and sometimes agitating to read, which fits the emotion well.

Sadness is often drawn out, using longer, slower sentences and lots of internalization. But it might also have short one or two-word sentences to punctuate that sadness.

Think about the beats of the words as if they were poetry. Ending on a downbeat can signify sadness, while an upbeat can indicate happiness.

(Here’s more on Feel the Rhythm of the Words)

Make Sure Your Characters Match the Tone

No matter how serious a situation is, if the point of view character is flippant and blows it off, it won't feel serious. Same as how a character being overly dramatic in a situation that clearly doesn't call for it can feel melodramatic.

Readers are going to take their clues from the characters, so unless the point is to show the characters have no clue what’s really going on, their emotional states will likely mimic or suit the tone of the scene.

How a character feels will also encourage readers to feel the same way. If the scene calls for happy and light, and the protagonist is happy and playful, readers will likely feel that happiness and smile as well. If the scene is fraught with danger and the tone suggests this is where it all goes wrong, readers will feel that tension and worry along with the character.

(Here’s more on Crafting Emotion: The Importance of Matching Actions To Feelings)

Tone can set a mood and turn a 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?

What tone(s) are you setting in your current novel?

*Originally published January 2011. Updated August 2019.

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

  7. 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.

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

  9. 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!

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

  11. 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 :)