Wednesday, April 01, 2020

How to Set Tone and Mood in Your Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Setting the right tone can go a long way to drawing readers into your story and keeping their attention.

I'm a little weird when it comes to scary movies. I enjoy (most) of them, but sometimes I also get so tense I can't watch them. I figured out ages ago it the music that gets me, not the scene itself. It builds, pokes at my emotions, and builds the tension in a masterful way that also builds my anticipation and fear. This also happens in games during boss fights or any mission with really stressful music.

When a movie or game starts getting to me, I mute the volume and all that built-up tension drops to the floor.

What do movie scores have to do with tone and mood?

Think of tone and mood like the music in scary movies. With the sound on, the scene makes you nervous--you jump, you twitch, you tense up--and it adds to the overall mood. Turn the sound off and the scene isn't scary anymore.  It's just stuff happening in front of you.

The tone lets them know how to take certain things--are the characters serious, lighthearted, intentionally silly, etc. The playful joke is different from the snide jibe, even if it's the exact same phrase.

The mood creates the atmosphere that prepares readers for the emotional state you want them to be in when they read a particular scene.

Use the right words and imagery, and they affect readers on a deeper level, and thus puts them in the right emotional frame of mind for the scene. Just like the music in a movie.

Creating the Right Tone and Mood in Your Novel

Let's say you wanted to convey a tense, suspenseful, anything-might-happen-at-any-second tone and mood in a scene with a guy walking across a courtyard who thinks someone is following him. 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:
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. What noises?

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. How does he know? What clues are telling him this?

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 much emotion from that. But if it had other emotions before this point, this would have more impact.

(Here's more on Leave a Message at the Tone: Setting the Right Tone for Your Novel)

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.

Even though this is better, it's still a little flat, right? It uses the right words to suggest worry and fear, but we're not truly feeling those emotions.

Next, let's toss out the common elements and go for more specific 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.

The word choices change 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.

(Here's more on Let's Talk About Adjectives)

Choose Words that Best fit the Tone and Mood of the Scene

Specific words carry a lot of
emotional weight with readers,
and create the right tone and mood.
How you 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 point of view 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.

(Here's more on Three Things to Consider When Writing Descriptions)

And no matter what tone you're setting, "what's going to happen next?" is what keeps those readers reading.

The words you choose to describe what happens in a scene are your story's music score. They underscore the emotions of the scene and nudge readers where you want them to go. If all you do is describe with accurate, yet generic words, then you miss an opportunity to create an emotional response in your readers. You want them to feel the mood like it was background music.

Do you have any examples of a novel, movie, or game that uses great tone or mood? 

*Originally published April 2013. Last updated April 1, 2020.

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.
Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Can we do two entries? This will be fun!

  2. "Crap." Jill sucked the blood from her hurt finger, eyeing the offending envelope.

    "Jill?" Her brother, John, looked up from where he rummaged for the letter opener.

    She shook her head and finger both. "Just a paper cut. Serves me right, for trying to open it too fast. You find it?"

    He handed it over, and she carefully opened the embossed envelope, her hands trembling from the strain of being patient. She didn't need to cut herself again.

    With downright shaking hands, she pulled the card from the envelope. The front featured a cat, curled up on a rock under fluffy white cards, with something in its mouth.

    Jill forced herself to take a deep breath and to study that something. A lily would be a warning, no matter what was written inside the card. An iris would mean she'd gotten the job. She'd gotten into this for the job, not to catch the eye of the sweet-tempered artist who thought she was pretty.

    Jill frowned and squinted. That surely couldn't be a rose, could it?

    "What?" John asked.

    She gave a little laugh, her stomach fluttering as warmth took root. "I, um." Jill looked at her brother, unable to stop the silly grin from taking over her face. "I think he likes me."

  3. For, me, I've always found it much easier to come up with strong nouns to set tone than I have strong verbs.

    So what I did was compile a massive list of strong verbs and, I have to say, it's really helped tighten my sentences and evoke the tone I wanted in less words.

    Good post.

  4. Here's mine; I'll see if I can come up with a creepy one:

    Jess whirled the plates out of the cupboard and into the basket. Ten minutes and he would be home. Ten minutes. She sang the words to herself as she sliced up the meat and cheese. Ben always put cheese on his sandwiches.

    The dog sat up and begged. Laughing, she fed him a piece of ham. For today, they could break house rules. Ben was coming home.

    Odds were he would be in uniform. He would walk in, tall, handsome, clean-cut, and he would tell her stories of his friends and the war, stories of blood and laughter. And she would laugh and gasp at all the right moments, and when he’d told all his stories, he’d lean in…

    Picnic blanket! She dashed to the hall closet and tumbled out half the quilts in an effort to find the right blanket. No time to refold now; she stuffed them back in and forced the door shut. Something to hold the blanket…no, they could just grab a rock or two from the riverbed.

    Cupcakes, twin bottles of Coke, at the last moment she remembered the paper napkins. And that was everything. Everything except Ben.

    She opened the window and leaned out, gazing up. Even the sky cooperated today, for there were no clouds to be seen.

    “Hello, lovely!”

    She nearly overbalanced at the halloo. “Ben! Oh Ben!” He grinned at her and lifted a hand in greeting. In his other hand, he held a bouquet of flowers.

  5. This is great information, Janice. As usual. I still think you should write a book on showing versus telling with lots of examples like this. You explain it so much better than I've seen elsewhere.

  6. Sam, I've had a few other folks mention lists like that. I think it's a great idea, and good for the vocabulary, too!

    Ken, thanks so much. That book is on the to-do list! I've stopped saying "I want to get it written by the end of the year" because stuff keeps coming up, but I really do hope that :)

  7. I do like a challenge! Hopefully forms of the challenge words will suffice.


    Something exploded in Merlise's belly, an unfamiliar but long-pent SPROING!, as if that misspelled bloody tiger from Winnie the Pooh had just exploded like laughter into a flowery patch of sunlight, bounced atop a standing rock, and hurled great golden clouds of butterflies fluttering up into the air.

    He'd said yes! William Henry Martin himself had said yes!

  8. Since we don't have a foreboding one, here's my take. (Please excuse the "air" quotes below, I couldn't get the form to accept my html tag)

    A wolf’s howl pierced the darkness, and Logan failed in his third attempt to calm his churning stomach. Hours earlier, the butchered mess at his feet could’ve passed as Mary’s twin. Then again, every blond haired lassie reminded him of his baby sister. He imagined the pair frolicking in a meadow full of wildflowers and laughter. Every little girl danced, right?

    The naked waif strewn in the mud taunted back silent accusations that scalded his eardrums.

    He coughed and grimaced at his fidgeting men. With a muttered curse, he forced himself to refocus on the blood-soaked body. Similar to the other victims, her eyes appeared as two milky clouds, staring into an eternal abyss. The mutation hid her eye coloring and concealed her final moments from his "dauthi" probing.

    Had she seen the creature? Had she felt each slicing gash? Had she cried for help?

    While the rest of his unit established a defensible perimeter, he staggered from the lantern-lit scene and collapsed against a nearby rock. Despite the night air freezing his nostrils, he wiped the sweat pouring from his brow. With his head bent, he whispered in his native tongue, “I promise you, Mary. I’ll slaughter the beast. I’ll avenge this innocent’s death … and yours too ... somehow. Just forgive me ... please.”

  9. Laughter and squeals assaulted his senses through shut windows. God, he hated those shrieks. Today, he would end them.

    The spring brought them out. They were little pagans with their rituals. Girls pulling daisy petals – he loves me; he loves me not – while boys wrestled on the lawn crushing flowers as they competed for attention and dominance. On his left, two unsupervised girls licked a puppy’s face. You would think someone would intervene, but no.

    The nannies around the perimeter paid scant attention. Afternoon wine and trite gossip occupied them. He would give them reason to talk.

    He felt flushed for an instant as his childhood hatred of nannies surfaced. “Merciless nags when they get you alone,” he thought. “They’re useless divas in a pack. Before I’m finished they’ll be mush and begging.” He envisioned pools of blood soaking the daisy field.

    He thought his planning was art. He stashed the gun-show Bushmaster behind the big rock in the corner of the park with his killing clothes and ammo. The fence segment he removed behind the boulder was practically invisible.

    Now, smoke clouds in the near distance told him garbage fires were bustling in their pits. He could sling in his gear and be gone in an instant. A minute later, he would be just another jogger on the road.

    In the empty apartment, he turned from the window savoring thoughts of fame and killing. “In an hour, I’ll hold the kiddie-kill record. I’ve found my calling.” He stepped outside.

  10. He should’ve known better than to hide on the roof. Lightning cracked; the icy rain soaked his back and slicked the shingles. He gripped the ridgepole a little more tightly and tilted his head back to squint at the sky. A grey bowl stretched above; those clouds weren’t going anywhere. Hartley sighed. If he could just last until morning…

    A rock bounced off his hand. He yelped and slid down a couple of inches. Laughter floated to him on the wind. Hartley peeked over his shoulder. A guerrilla perched in the old oak with squirrel-like grace, heedless of the driving rain.

    “Going somewhere, sunshine?”

    Hartley drew a slow breath past the tightness in his chest. He couldn’t reach for his gun, couldn’t risk falling. Not with a two story fall. Even if the drop didn’t break his leg, the guerrillas would kill him. He took another breath, and another, trying to push away the image of blood.

    “Look at this!” the guerrilla yelled. “The very flower of the Flandonish army!”

    Drag himself up to the ridgepole and try to outshoot the guerrilla? He heaved, throwing all his strength into his tiring arms. But the wet shingles offered no grip. He glanced again at the other soldier. A gun. Hartley’s breath caught in his chest again. He was going to die.

  11. Dark doorways dominated the long hallway, gaping like missing teeth against the immaculate white walls. Jessie swallowed and crept along the railing. The smell was getting stronger. She plucked a flower from an overflowing vase and crushed it under her nose. She froze as laughter drifted up from the party downstairs, smothering any quiet sounds escaping the rooms in front of her.

    Even though Jessie had cleaned these rooms herself only a few hours ago, each doorway exhaled a musty scent. Maybe that was all, Jessie thought. This was just an old, barely-inhabited house. You’re building castles in the clouds, her mother’s voice accused. And Mrs Fulton was sure to miss her by now. But the scent of the slaughterhouse drove her forward.

    She tiptoed into the Iris Room, the last bedroom in this part of the house, her skin prickling under imagined eyes. She hadn’t dared bring a candle, but she could see something slumped in the corner. Heart pounding, eyes and ears straining, she inched toward the dark mass.

    It moved. Jessie stiffened, then stifled a scream as a cat leapt from the mound and out the door. Jessie pressed her hand to her heart, blinking away spots.

    Then she saw the blood. Her gorge rose as she saw what the cat had been gnawing on, and the source of the butcher shop smell was made all too clear.

    Jessie turned to run. The blow took her in the temple. She rocked gently before sliding to the floor.

  12. Oops! Forgot a hyphen and it was driving me crazy. Wish we could edit comments rather than delete them.

       Rin yanked the door open. "What's up?"

       The grinning buck-toothed girl on the doorstep wore a thin tail-sash and mouse-ear hairclips. "Rin, some minstrels came to town! Hurry, let's go!"

       Rin shook her head, faux dog ears flopping. "Roz, I have homework, chores, and—"

       Roz snatched Rin's hand and tugged. "Aw, come on. We haven't had a break in days!"

       "Head in the clouds, as always. Fine, I'll go. But only for a little bit!"

       The two girls scurried down the street. The city's noisy midday hubbub couldn't drown out Roz's squeaky laughter. A crowd gathered by the city square where three minstrels lingered. A large man hunched over leathery drums, broad shoulders like an ox. A raven-haired woman with blood-red skin sat before a harp, fingers poised.

       An outlandish man stood in front. Two-tone blond-black hair, fluffy fur-collared vest, blazing flame designs rising up his pant legs. He held a flat angular lute in one hand, and a flower in the other.

       "Welcome, everyone! Welcome to the birth of a new sound! A fusion of magic and music! I call it 'rock!'" He flung the flower into the crowd. Roz leapt up and caught it.

       The minstrel strummed, sparks dancing at his fingertips. A harsh sound spilled forth, squealing along with the harp's melody and the booming drums. The song they played sang of mountains, oceans, and adventure without a single word.

       Roz sniffed the flower. "Rin, I think I'm in love."

       Rin rolled her eyes. "Again?"

  13. Had to fix something last time! Never done these kinds of exercises before, but I gave it a go. Here's my entry:

    While switching off the lights in the corner, I hear a creak. In the dimness, something shifts at the corner of my eye. I turn to see a woman staring at the book stacks.

    “May I help you ?” I ask.

    “I left my son here so I could find a book. He must’ve wandered off - I can’t find him.”

    She gazes at something behind me. I turn around but nothing’s there.

    “What’s his name?” She smells of old sweat like the homeless. Dried blood crusts a gash on her hand. I glance towards the door. We’re alone.

    “Crane!” She marches towards the stacks. “Probably playing hide-and-seek. He does that sometimes!” Her laughter muffles as she digs into her bag. “He loves collecting things too.” On the floor, she lays down a rock, a flower and a robin.

    It’s dead.

    I swallow. Is she mental? Clouds smother the setting sun plunging us into shadow. The shrouded stacks conceal a listening silence. My heart pounds in my ears as I creep forward.

    “Why hasn’t he answered?” she whispers.

    Be reasonable - the boy might’ve left for food.

    “What time did you leave him?”

    “Five years ago.”

    My chest freezes. “Pardon?”

    “Five years ago. But he loves to play hide-and-seek. He must be hiding here.”

    A light flickers.

    “Perhaps we can get help from the front desk,” I say, my voice wavering.

    Reluctantly, she follows me towards the exit. Before the door closes, a small voice cries out.


  14. I love these challenges Janice. Keep them coming. Here is my submission:

    I didn’t want to stop, but I had to. At this point each of my legs felt like they had been dipped in cement and were beginning to harden.

    One little break wouldn’t hurt.

    With my hands resting on my hips and my head to the sky, I panted like a puppy and sucked in all the air my lungs would allow. The clouds had changed from fluffy white to a smooth grey. If I didn’t get back soon I would be drenched.

    I looked down at my feet as if to ask permission for them to take me home, and they would, but only if I tied my shoe string first. At ground level, inches in front of me, I watched an ant crawl up the stem of a yellow tulip. They were always the first flower to arrive in spring. Just as I tightened the knot on the lace the sound of screeching tires made me jump. Before I could turn to see the commotion, my head was covered in complete darkness.

    What the f…?

    In what felt like one gestured, a hand was over my mouth and I was lifted off the ground. My cemented legs did their best to kick. It was useless. My body hit cold metal and was held down by large, heavy hands. Blearing rock music and laughter surrounded me, but they weren’t enough to drown out the sound of my own blood pounding hard and fast through my ears and chest.

  15. Ooops, I tried to post this yesterday but had some technical difficulties...sorry:)

    "Oh, all right! I'm coming," I said to nobody. I leapt into the air, heading back toward the trenches. "Shouldn't have left...went too far... fool thing to do...." My grumbling became a chant, a kind of rhythm that kept my tired wings going. I puffed and panted, gradually gaining speed. It was nearly morning by the time I got back.
    The familiar reek of blood and sweat was my first clue that I was almost there. A sliver of morning sunlight peeked over the skyline, filtering sidelong through the dewy clouds. I gasped when something flickered in the hazy light. What was that? I turned back, slowing my pace as I got close. The something waved a silvery-gray wing. Soft feathers scraped, back and forth, against the rocks and flowers on forest floor.
    "Do you need help?" I called, edging a little closer. She looked at me without seeing, and that's when I understood. She wasn't flapping her wing at all; it was just blowing, lifelessly, in the wind. Oh no. And, the little war pigeon's soft, silvery feathers looked all too familiar. No, no, no! I whipped around and headed for the trenches with a new, frenzied energy; mad laughter escaped from my throat.
    I had to get back to the others, to see them with my own eyes. Please, please, let them be all right!

  16. "Thank god for dark glasses,"The blood stopped spraying enough for me to wipe the stuff from my face and eyes. "WTF, Nancy I shouted bring some water."
    "Why do archeological digs always have to be in god forsaken places?" I muttered to myself. "Hurry, you'll need to bring more that that!" I shouted at her.

    My pick stuck in a rock that spurted blood. "What next man-eating flowers." I rubbed my aching back, too old for this, "

    "Where are the damn clouds I shouted to the sky, sun burning my face." The students arrived lugging heavy water cans and began sloshing some water to clear the dust around my pick and the now quite substantial puddle of blood. Well I was not a biologist but it looked and tasted like blood.

    The intern giggled a silly nervous laugh, "What now?" I snapped. The sliding rocks under my feet and the columns of ants erupting from the ground. Tremors shook my feet right from under me my face now a foot from the ground rubble grinding away under my hands and knees.

    The rock blinked,"Nonsense this only happens in B grade horror movies Ruuun I shouted this always ends badly."

  17. Thanks for the rerun. Great dissection and explanation!

  18. First, Janice, excuse my English. I'm learning it, while I finished the first draft of my novel.

    And secondly, thank you very much because your post. It is one that I really liked the way you have analyzed a text word by word, a very clear and effective way to make us see where the problems are.

    Greetings from Spain.

  19. Henry whet his knife on the craggy rock he sat on. He didn’t even want to make that scraping, hollow sound. But it was falling dark fast and it would be his only weapon.

    Another wind whipped through the tall African grass. Buzzards skirted distant clouds. They were waiting for the sun like him. Waiting for it to rise up like blood.

    Henry huddled into his collar. He held the blade and cut down some flowers for medicine. A few trees loomed ahead where he’d have to sleep.

    If only Paul had returned. Henry shook his head. A regret. Certainly. But one he’d have to live with.

    He straightened. Clouds were coming in, slanted. Maybe it would rain. Henry turned to face the mountains and cut more grass. Not much of a bed but he didn’t expect luxury. He gathered a bundle in his lap and waited.

    A faint laughter in the distance.


    Henry sucked in a hard breath and gripped his knife. He hobbled to the tree, its branches waving overhead.

    “Come on,” he muttered.

    The first one scrambled into the clearing, its fur gleaming white. Another followed with snapping jaws. Henry had one hand on the thick bark. He swiped the air with an invisible sound. In the flash of metal, they leaped back. A third was whooping out in the field, and Henry could hear them trampling the grass.

    “I don’t mean any harm,” he said. His chest was tumbling.

    And then the rest arrived.

  20. The blood glistened in the daylight and it surrounded Aesha Jones' corpse in a dry puddle spread across the asphalt. Detective Winnifred swallowed. The first victim found lived beyond state limits, the second victim beyond city limits, the third victim beyond the neighborhood, and now the fourth victim lay meters beyond her front porch. A chill enveloped her, made worse by her familiarity with the killer - and its inhuman origins.

    She would contact Bartholomew and make the blasted decision: sanction a quarantine on Violet Grove.

  21. It is interesting how choice of words can effect the story in a good or bad way. The wrong words can take away interest such as the example of "Bob walked," which ultimately sounded much improved with the change of "Bob crept," since he was silently traversing the location. Quantity of words matter less than quality words, or the 'right' words. The ability to create a mood through the right choice of words is ultimately what leads to an effective story.

    1. Great summation. I find it fascinating that the tiniest details can make a huge impact.