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Wednesday, April 12

How the Wrong Tone Can Change Your Whole Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Tone is a funny thing. Words spoken in a light tone can convey playfulness, but the same words in a serious tone can convey anger, fear, or even a threat. This holds true for actions as well—playfully chasing someone looks and feels different than chasing someone to cause them harm.

Too-flippant characters in a serious novel might undermine the danger and lesson then tension. Characters who never laugh or behave too seriously can turn a light-hearted comedy into melodrama. Even the words we use to describe the setting can send the wrong message if the tone conflicts with the scene (and that’s not the intent).

One of my favorite examples of this is in recut movie trailers.

Simply changing the music turns a comedy into a drama, a horror story into a love story, or a fun adventure into a serious thriller. It’s genius how the creators of these trailers recut and rearrange them to achieve a very different effect than the original movie.

When you picture Mary Poppins, odds are you imagine funny songs, dancing penguins, and a stern-yet-sweet Julie Andrews. But watch what happens when a lovable nanny and catchy tunes are reworked with a much darker undertone:



Quite the difference. Now, those foggy London streets are foreboding and you don’t want that woman anywhere near your children. It’s the same footage with a sinister tone, and it portrays an entirely different movie.

Even dark and sinister can change tones and come across as something touching and sweet, as in this fantastic recut of The Shinning:



Between the music and the new narration framing the story, this horror movie seems like a touching love story about healing and friendship. It even makes Jack Nicholson look like a lovable guy.

It doesn’t always take a huge shift in tone to change the feel of a story, however. Take this recut of Raiders of the Lost Arc as a Bourne-style thriller:



Same images, but the fun, adventure aspect is missing (and the great Indiana Jones theme). Any sense of a delightful treasure hunt is gone, and we’re left with a much darker version of the quest for the lost arc.

If you think some stories just can’t be changed by tone, try this recut of Pall Blart: Mall Cop as a Die Hard-style thriller:



If a different tone can turn Kevin James into Bruce Willis, any story can be affected by changing the tone.

Music plays a huge role in these trailers, and description and word choice in a novel works the same way. Setting a dark scene with light images can create the tone that turns The Shinning into Shining.

(Here's more on setting tone and mood in your scenes)

Pay attention to what tone you’re creating in your scenes, and make sure the images and words you use reflect the tone you want to convey. Because the wrong tone can turn that sweet romance into a story about a creepy stalker.

What tone is your novel? Have you even read a novel where the tone felt off or wrong?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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4 comments:

  1. Dramatic changes in those movies, however, shouldn't there be flexibility in tone so the story is more interesting? I am working on a historic drama but reading this post, I, now, wonder if I should insert a few, very few, lighter scenes, maybe even a little comic.

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    1. Of course. Too much of any one thing can get tedious after a while. But there's a difference between a lighter moment in a dark tale and a light tone that's supposed to convey dark and scary. Using the opposite tone can work to show contrast, or tweak emotions, make a point, etc. Just like a soundtrack influences how a viewer experiences the emotions in a movie, tone and mood influence the emotions of the reader.

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  2. I've experienced this having someone else edit my writing and vice versa. Even a single word can completely change the same sentence.

    I love doing that. It's like magic. I wave my writer's wand, and with no effort, bam -- the entire paragraph or even scene takes on an entirely different feel.

    Those trailers are hilarious. This is a great post!

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    1. Thanks! I'm always amazed at how a single word can change things. It's so cool, and really shows the power of language.

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