Monday, March 16

Day Sixteen: Clarify the Tone and Mood

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Sixteen of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. As we enter this stage, we should feel pretty good about our plot and characters, and understand what and why they’re doing all those exciting and interesting things in our novels. We’ve been focusing on the what and the why for a while, so it’s time to give a little attention to the where.

Our description has now been whipped into shape and is doing a solid job of setting the scene and directing the action. It’s time to move on to the emotional side of description.

Today, let’s take a closer look at the tone and mood of our novels.

1. Check for Clarity of Tone

Tone is like a soundtrack playing in the novel’s background. It tweaks the emotions at the right moment and nudges readers toward what we want them to feel. Not every scene has to have the same tone, but if we’re writing a light, fun romance, a lot of heavy, dark scenes are likely going to make the book feel out of whack.

Tone is also vital in creating the right reader expectations. That cozy mystery probably doesn’t want to start off with a room full of people being slaughtered. It’ll send all the wrong signals for what the novel is really about. Look at your scenes and ask:
  • Does the opening scene convey the tone of the novel?
  • Does each scene set the tone of that scene?
  • Does the imagery and word choice of the descriptions reflect this tone?
  • Does the tone enhance individual scenes to bring about the desired emotional impact on the reader?
  • Does the tone change over the course of the novel? Should it?

(Here are more articles on creating tone)

2. Check for Clarity of Mood

If tone is the novel’s soundtrack, mood is its lighting. The mood of a scene can also create the right emotional reactions in readers and characters. Mood and tone can play off each other to heighten emotions and raise tensions. For example, a foreboding tone paired with nervous characters will put readers on edge, waiting for something to happen. It's the equivalent of scary music playing while someone walks through a dark house during a storm.

Even if the tone is dark and angry, you might still have moments of levity or characters having fun (and vice versa in a light-hearted novel with serious, dark moments). Look at your scene and ask:
  • What mood do you want the characters to convey?
  • What mood do you want the scene itself to convey?
  • Would conflicting tone and mood enhance the scene?
  • Does the mood of the scene change?
  • What do you want readers to feel in this scene? Does the mood reflect that?
(Here are more articles on creating mood)

3. Check for Emotional Clarity

A scene meant to be scary and foreboding with a POV character who isn’t a bit scared or worried will likely result in an emotional disconnect for readers. Take a look at your scenes and make sure the characters are feeling (and conveying) the right emotions for that scene. Look at:
  • How each character feels at the start of the scene
  • What emotions change in the scene
  • What you want readers to feel in the scene

Revision tip: Don’t forget to check the emotions for all the characters in the scene. Each one will react differently based on their moods and personality.

Extra tip:
If you have a scene that's not working, try changing the emotional state of your protagonist. How might she approach things if she was in a totally different mood? Try it with the other characters in the scene as well.

4. Enhance the Tone and Mood

For every scene that feels emotionally empty, add a little feeling to the descriptions. Try using:

Imagery: Certain images convey certain emotions, and you can use those to your advantage. If you want to evoke sadness, look for images that tend to make people sad—injured animals, crying, rain, things dying, etc.

Words: Choose words associated with the tone, mood, or emotion you want to create. Someone skipping along the street feels differently than someone creeping along it, though they're both "walking."

Rhythm: How words go together can also evoke emotion. Snappy banter is often fast-paced, with short sentences, and 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.

Characters: What the characters think and feel will also help set a tone or create a mood. No matter how serious a situation is, if the POV is flippant and blows it off (and that’s not the point of this scene), 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 readers.

After today’s session, we should have a rich, emotional layer to our novels that’s working well to convey the right tone and mood and enhance our story. Next, we’ll take a look at where we foreshadow and reveal information.

Tomorrow: Strengthen the Foreshadowing and Reveals

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released 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, and The Truman Award in 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, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Janice, thanks so much for this workshop. it's been invaluable as I revise my work-in-progress. Virginia Winters

    1. Most welcome, and I'm glad you're finding it helpful :)

  2. I've been working through these as I revise my novel and they have been a great help in summarising the steps to go through. Thanks Janice for your hard work. Lynn Johnson

    1. You're welcome :) Happy it's going well for you.

  3. Thanks for the clear description about tone and mood and how the two go together- very well explained. I am way back...a long ways, but is a great help and motivation for my revision!

    1. My pleasure. No rush on the workshop at all, I'm behind, too :) It's a lot to cover in 31 days, and I figured most folks would need more. Take it at your own pace.