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?