Setting the right tone can go a long way to drawing readers into your story and keeping their attention. Think of it like the scary music in horror movies. With the sound on, the scene makes you nervous, you jump when things happen, and it adds to the overall mood. Turn the sound off and the scene isn't scary anymore. It's just things happening in front of you.
The words you choose to describe what happens in a scene are like the music. If all you do is describe with accurate, yet generic words, then you miss an opportunity to create an emotional response in your reader. You want them to feel the mood like it was background music.
Let's say you wanted to get across a tense, suspenseful, anything might happen at any second tone and mood.--a guy walking across a courtyard who thinks someone is following. You might write it like:
Bob walked across the courtyard, nervously looking over his shoulder at every noise. He knew someone was back there, he could feel it in the twisting pit of his stomach.Bob is nervous, but do you feel it? Probably not, because the word choices here tell more than they show, and they aren't specific. Let's break it down some:
Bob walked across the courtyard, nervously looking over his shoulder at every noise. He knew someone was back there, he could feel it in the twisting pit of his stomach.Walked does nothing to set tone because it's generic. It also doesn't suggest something is wrong.
Nervously looking tells us he's nervous, which distances us from the action.
At every noise is also generic and does nothing to set the scene.
Knew someone was back there tells us what Bob knows, but does nothing to show readers or make them worry that someone is back there.
Feel tells, though twisting pit of his stomach has a nice vibe. However, it's a common way to show apprehension so readers aren't likely to feel any real emotion from that.
(More on setting the right tone)
Let's swap out a few words and see how the tone changes:
Bob crept across the courtyard, glancing over his shoulder every few steps. Someone was back there. The twisting pit in his stomach was never wrong.It might not win any awards, but it's better.
Crept suggests he's sneaking or trying to be quiet, which implies he doesn't want anyone to hear or see him. Show vs. the told.
Glancing over a shoulder is what nervous people do. It shows and let's readers figure out the motive.
Someone was back there becomes internal thought, which puts the reader more in Bob's head and thus more in the scene.
Same with the twisting pit in his stomach.
For a different approach, let's toss out the common elements and go for unexpected word choices and imagery:
Bob slowed. Sunlight filled the courtyard ahead, chasing away the shadows and exposing every potential piece of cover. No way anyone could hide out there, but that applied to him as well as whoever was behind him. If anyone was. Crap.This gives a different sense of the situation, doesn't it?
Slowing down is the opposite of what most people would do if they thought they were being followed. It makes you wonder why he does it.
Sunlight exposes things, which contrasts the sense of the shadowy lurker. What might be seen in the light? Is this setting up a reveal?
Potential cover suggest training on Bob's part, which implies he's not just a random guy, so the person following him might not be either.
No one could hide suggests he's already thinking of a plan, and that he sees the pros and cons of the location ahead as it pertains to his situation.
If anyone was says he's not sure.
Crap shows he's not happy about that.
Unusual word choices changes the situation. Instead of a nervous guy walking across a courtyard, there's a worried guy who recognizes the dangers ahead and is trying to figure out what to do about it. A proactive protagonist to be sure, but there are also enough hints that say something is about to go down and it might not be what the reader expects.
(More on adjectives)
How you choose to describe a scene, and what your point of view character notices, sets the tone of the scene. Generic words that apply to any situation do little to create a mood. Common or clichéd words and imagery give the sense that readers have seen this before, so they know how it's likely to play out. Even if you do surprise them with what happens, odds are the anticipation of that surprise was lacking, so you miss out on the emotional punch.
Think about what your POV characters would see and how they'd interpret it. Choose words that create the mood or tone you want readers to feel, and show them things they haven't seen a hundred times before. Don't go for the easy or familiar. Unfamiliarity creates uncertainty, and uncertainty leads to anticipation. Once you have that, you have the reader wondering what will happen next.
(More on POV and description)
And no matter what tone you're setting, "what's going to happen next?" is what keeps those readers reading.
Writing exercise time! (contest is now closed, but feel free to do the exercise for fun)
Let's do something a little tougher this week. In 250 words or less, set one of two tones: A scary, foreboding tone, or a happy, excited tone.
But here's the catch--you can't use any of those words, or pseudonyms of those words, in the pieces. So no frightened, scary, happy, excited, etc. Try to avoid happy or scary adjectives at all. Do it all with nouns and verbs.
And the extra challenge: Use these six words in the piece in some way.
Rock, flower, an animal (your choice), blood, laughter, and clouds.Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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