Being a Better Writer: Setting a Tone for Your Work

Welcome back readers, to another Monday! You know, I try to make these openings as chipper and cheerful as I can when writing because hey, it’s Monday, and most people need that at the start of another workweek. So hey, I hope this chipper opening tone works for some of you!

Newswise, it was a pretty quiet weekend. quiet to the degree that I’m reasonably certain there’s not much to post here that wasn’t already covered with last Friday’s news summary. Save that it was a scorcher of a weekend here. I don’t know what the weather was like for most of you, but it was in the low-nineties here. It gets hotter than that in the summers here, but it climbing to that temperature so quickly in the summer was both refreshing and scorching.

On the plus side, there was a summer thunderstorm on Friday evening that I got to watch with my sister while eating dinner post a nice bike ride, so that was nice. Always down for watching some summer thunder! Plus, my area needs the rain they bring.

Okay, so enough yapping about my weekend. We’ve got writing to talk about! This week we’re tackling yet another reader question, this time concerning tone. To be specific, how you set a tone for your story, if you even should, and how changing that tone partway through can affect your story/audience.

So, if any of that sounded intriguing to you as a writer, then buckle up and hit the jump!

Okay, so we’re talking about tone. That’s nice, but there are certain to be readers plying their eyes over this and thinking “But wait, what is tone?” So we’re going to talk about that first. Deliver a foundation before we start on the larger structure.

Tone is something everyone has been exposed to in story, be that story from a film, a book, a video game, or even a ballad. Tone, like style, is something that any tale will simply have. A creator can choose their tone up front and deliver something specific to the audience, or they can simply write and a tone will take shape. Tone can no more be avoided in the creation of any tale that dirty dishes in the act of cooking a meal. It is integral to the existence of any story.

Which, yes, means that if you’re sweating bullets over this “tone thing” and how to include it, you need not worry that much. Tone will appear whether intended or not. It simply is and will be.

However, since tone will always be part of any story, this means that it’s automatically something a creator can choose to take control of in order to emphasize or detract from certain elements of their story. It can be adjusted, modified, or deliberately manipulated.

But what is it? Well, simply put, tone is the attitude or mood of a story or scene that aids the audience in their expectations. A good way to think of it is like the lighting of a room.

I want each of you to think about rooms for a moment. Think about how lighting plays a part in each of them. Think about the difference in lighting between various kinds of rooms, from a classroom to a museum exhibit, to a bathroom, to a restaurant, to a carnival room somewhere. If you’ve got a sharp sense of discernment, you may have noticed that each of these rooms will be designed with a different form and type of lighting. A classroom (in the US) will be bland and flat, prison-like, designed to avoid stimulation. A museum exhibit will be bright, but directed towards the objects on display. A bathroom’s lighting will usually be soft (though not always) to make the user feel relaxed. Restaurant lighting will vary depending on the type of restaurant: those that want you to sit down and enjoy a meal will usually deploy softer, warmer lighting to encourage sitting and relaxing, while those that want patrons in and out will usually use sharper, brighter lighting that has “energy” to it (I’m not joking about this; observe your local fast food joints compared to normal restaurants).

And a carnival room? Those can run the gamut, from lots of bright, happy lighting that can get the audience engaged, or even distracted for a few kinds of games, to darker “creepy” blue lighting for places like haunted houses. A carnival will have all sorts of variations in one place.

Shifting more toward the medium of writing, tone in movies is always (in good productions, at least) accompanied by careful choices of lighting to help the audience be in the right “mood.” Going to some classic examples we’ve talked about before on this site, this is one I can actually demonstrate by showing you a few clips. Do you notice, for example, similarities in the lighting of Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean? If not, take a look right now (it’s an excuse to watch clips from both).

Do you see it? Both have similar use of color. In fact, even if you go to some of the fights from Pirates, like the first battle between Will and Jack, though they fight in a shadowed forge, the shadows are never “dark” and there are a stunning amount of “golden-light rays” the two characters clash through.

Why? Because the lighting helps set the tone. These are fun, lighthearted romps of adventure. But later in the first pirates film, there’s a shift in the tone as the tension begins to ramp up, and we get this scene:

Did you see it? That change from the warmer golden coloration to a colder blue? Now, the blue in pirates is still a warmer blue (compared to the blue-grey used by a lot of horror movies), but it’s a shift in tone, and the color plays a part in that.

Okay, now I don’t want to mislead here. You’re not going to be changing the color of your book’s pages or telling your reader what the light of your scene is like every time. My point is that lighting plays a part in tone when it comes to visual elements, and it’s an easily identifiable aspect of tone for purposes of teaching it. Movies, knowing that they want to use tone, control the lighting of any scene very carefully, as do restaurants interested in selling a product. They use tone across scene or setting to manipulate the expectations of the audience.

So that’s what tone is: It’s the attitude and mood of a setting or scene, and it’s used to modify audience expectations. Certain tones are signals to the audience of what to expect and be prepared for.

But in writing, it’s not as easy to identify as with a film or some other visual medium. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean it can’t be identified. See, tone isn’t all visual (and of course, isn’t at all when discussing the written word). Attitude and mood can be conveyed in more than just color. They can be conveyed in how characters act, or how serious narration is. It can be conveyed in the length of paragraphs, or in the shortness of sentences. Pluck a random paragraph of Prachett, for example, and compare it to a selection from King, and you’ll see that the tone varies widely. Prachett’s writing tends to be quite satirical and tongue-in-cheek, while King is writing, well, horror. As such, the tone will be very different.

Before we move on, however, I want to stress again that tone will always exist, and is something that will be part of any story. If a writer is looking to write a funny story, they’ll naturally be thinking of funny elements that will make the tone amusing or entertaining. If they want to write adventure, they’ll be looking for ways to make tone tense and thrilling. Exaggerating a tone doesn’t have to happen; a tone’s touch can be light or heavy. I say all of this because I don’t want any readers walking away from this stressing about what the tone of their story is going to be or worrying that they can’t deliver a tone. If you write a story, a tone will come across.

However, understanding what can enhance or detract from a certain tone can be quite useful. After all, while Pirates would still be a fun movie without the same light filters, the lighting does help give it some of the oomph. And that shift from “warm and safe” to “colder blue” brings with it a great jump in the tension and the stakes.

Which is a nice segue into the actual question that prompted this post, asking about setting a tone for a story and then whether or not one could choose to change it partway through. And now that we’ve talked about what tone is and given some examples of usage, we can actually get around to that question.

So, writing with tone in mind. As I said earlier, all stories will have or develop tone as they’re written. This isn’t something one can avoid, it’s simply a fact about the nature of stories. However, knowing what tone you want to use from the very beginning and keeping that in mind can help enhance the readability of your story, as can recognize when you’re jumping too far from an established tone.

Going back to the visual example, have you ever seen one of those internet challenges that tasks viewers with identifying the genre of a film based on its color? Well, setting an early tone does the same, for both the audience and the creator. Ask yourself, right now, how differently you would write two heist stories, one of which would be a danger-laden thriller, the other a comedy revenge story, and you might immediately sense how knowing what tone you want to use can impact even the earliest pages of a story being penned. Knowing what sort of overall tone a writer wants their story to pursue has an immediate impact on the presentation of said story, what words are used, etc.

So again, while a writer doesn’t need to worry about tone in order for tone to take shape—and novice writers can safely work on the fundamentals of storytelling without worrying too much about tone save perhaps for scenes—those who want to strike at a specific tone for their story can determine to do so at the start.

As to how to strike each type of tone … well that’d be an answer worth far, far more words than could be spent on a single Being a Better Writer entry. Like lighting in a movie, however, tone is something that is spread across every bit of the image, or in writing’s case, every paragraph of a story, It encompasses genre, character, and just about anything else.

However, if you’re struggling with tone and how different stories use it, I’d suggest a trip to the local library or even to your favorite bookshelf and the selection of a variety of stories across genre. Once you have a couple, look at how they present scenes or chapters and ask as a reader “What influences the current tone?” Look for what makes a horror book different in tone from an adventure story, or an adventure story a thriller. Or a romance. How does the “lighting” of each chapter change? By studying and reading with a mind toward “What tone is set here, how is that accomplished, and how does it change my expectations?” identification can be made as to how a tone was set or achieved, and that knowledge put to use.

However, there was a second half to this reader question. While choosing a tone is often simple (IE, it’s a comedy, so let’s make it fun), the reader who posed this topic had a more specific concept/usage in mind. They wanted to know about setting up or choosing a tone (covered) but also about the wisdom of switching tone partway through a story.

To which I say woof. Because while yes, this can be done–and has been–it’s one of those things that can be tricky to pull off right, and even skilled creators sometimes goof up at it. And even then, when it’s done well, it just sometimes turns people away!

For example, I give you the Resident Evil series, a horror series of games that have been around for over two decades now. They’re pretty famous, but they also have come with a common complaint that saw once again, their most recent entry (number eight) come under some criticism. Because most of the time they don’t stay horror games. They ramp up, introducing higher stakes for the characters survival but giving them tools to combat things, and well … that means by the end often they end up more akin to an action game than a horror game. And action has some very different tone to it than horror.

Again, not everyone is bothered by this, and it’s also regarded as one of the mechanical issues with making a horror game that escalates and yet gives the player freedom to interact. Games are different than books, so a book won’t have exactly this problem, but I think you can see the issue here with the jump: Some people don’t like that change in tone. They want horror to stay horror and not become a thriller or action.

Jumping tones in a book runs awry of the same problem: When your audience is on board for what’s initially presented, they may not enjoy a story suddenly changing its tone on them to something different. Especially if those tonal changes are really discordant. Say, pure horror to romance.

Okay, that’s a genre shift as well, but since genre shifts impact tone, you can see how this might make an audience react poorly. There may be some that like it, but especially among those that don’t expect such a shift in tone, said shift will be jarring and unwelcome, maybe to the degree of putting the work away.

Does this mean that a discordant tone shift isn’t useful? Well … I wouldn’t say that. Dangerous, yes. But not useful? No. Just … volatile.

See, a tonal shift can really jar readers … but maybe that what a creator wants to do? Sometimes a jarring tone can be useful, either to unsettle an audience, imply that things aren’t as they seem, or even to use the discordant elements as a tool of emotion. For example, a comedic tone over the top of a horror genre story can make the disconnect between the genre and the tone all the more apparent … which can make it funnier.

There are stories that do this! Some readers are probably thinking of a few right now. But there is something about those stories to point out, and that is that the audience is aware of the discordant elements before starting the story. Those who miss the marketing or the clues? Well … like the unexpecting elderly couple who arrived at the theater showing of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies expecting more Pride and Prejudice and less Zombies and comedic elements who left quite shook and unhappy, a sudden, unexpected tonal shift can really throw the audience for a loop.

Again though, sometimes this works. There are rare instances of books that pitch themselves on one tone only to “trick” the reader into another story entirely. And sometimes that can be enjoyable. But I will caution that this is risky. For everyone that enjoys the tonal shift and what it can bring, there will be those that enjoy it less because they wanted what the story started as, not what it became. There are people, who upon seeing the shift in Pirates linked above, liked the story less for introducing those elements.

However, there’s no denying that for the rest of us, it’s a striking scene! And the rest of the story uses the two tones quite well while never losing the spirit of adventure at its core.

So in answer to this reader’s question, yes you can shift tone partway through a story, but it’s a volatile tool to use and thereby should be used with great care. Don’t dismiss it, but don’t leap to use it unless you’re confident you can keep your audience invested through the jump or plan to use it to create more interest, not less.

Phew! And that’s tone. So, let’s recap! First of all, tone will always exist in a story, whether or not a creator set out to put it in their work. It’s integral and part of it. Tone is just the attitude and/or mood of a story that gives the audience expectations, and will always be there.

But since it will always exist, a writer can use tone to enhance a story, scene, etc. Just like lighting can be used in a film or a restaurant to set a “tone” for the audience to key into and expect, a story’s tone can temper and influence the expectations of the reader. And, yes, very carefully, a writer can use a tone-shift or a discordant tone as a tool to amplify or adjust the audience’s perspective of things. Carefully, I repeat, because that last one can be volatile. But again, useful and powerful if used right.

As to how you’ll know what moment is right and what isn’t … Well, I can’t answer that. Not for each case. Practice then, and experimentation, will guide the way. So …

Good luck. Now get writing.

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