Elements of Style: Tone

An important thing I learned when I was learning to write was to consider the various elements of style. For the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging about various elements of style. Don’t take any of this as the only way to write – just as some general discussion you might find useful when crafting your stories.  

Tone, as far as writing goes, essentially sets the mood of the piece. No doubt, you’re all familiar with remakes and spin-offs that seem to differ greatly than the originals. Even if a project is whole but it has a variety of marketing material, you might see that the mood or image it sets is far different when catering to the various demographics. An example of this would be a YA novel that has an adult following – the tone of the children’s cover might have a softer, or more fun tone than the adult cover of the same material.

So, how does one go about setting the tone of a piece of work? I suppose it depends on your personal writing style – an individual who plans out every detail before sitting down to write might decide to themselves that they want a piece to feel a certain way. Myself, I usually have a vague idea and a scene and I let the creative process figure things out as I go along and craft a story – I used to try plotting things out, things never go according to plan. My personal writing style usually varies a bit for the first few days while I figure out what exactly I’m doing, but usually it focuses very quickly on some determining factors, usually the tone sets the pacing and the voice of the story helps me determine the content. Here’s a list of possible tones, but you are certainly not limited to them:












A story that has a sense of cynical grittiness would feel very different then essentially the same plot told in a more fun, whimsical voice. That isn’t to say that you can’t have humor in your sensual or epic novel – understanding tone allows authors known for being funny, such as Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett to still tell great stories with depth. Likewise, I can be reading something very serious where anyone can die and we can have moments of lightness and even humor – but understanding the tone of the novel early on helps me decide how evil I want the villain to act, what kind of language is allowed, and this helps me shape the overall feel of the novel while I’m still drafting it. Even if a reader is not familiar with my genre or the hero’s struggle because they can’t understand exactly what it is to go against supernatural forces, they can still relate to the character on an emotional level through tone.

Some times, novels don’t fit easily into categories – I was at a convention this last weekend and I had to talk about the variety of books on our table very quickly, and in addition to telling them a little about the plot, I was telling them which books were funny or were dark in tone. So even though you might have some novel that defies genre and the plot’s very complicated, you could tell potential readers, “It’s kind of a dark, distant novel.” Obviously some jargon can be used out of context (“A harrowing, anyone-can-die adventure” might explain driving to the mall with certain people I know) and you don’t want to rely on clichés to sell your book, but if I’m doing a retelling of sleeping beauty, telling it from the tragic side of the evil witch is a different story then that of the wacky adventures of Prince Charlie C. Charming and his Magic Singing Sword ©.

Once you pick a tone, you don’t have to commit to it wholly if you find the story going in its own direction, but it might help you rein it in and bring your focus back on track. And if you absolutely aren’t sure what tone you want, just write. Read through your work later, and think about what themes and emotions you get from your piece. You don’t have to write a little sticky for your monitor that says, “Regal tone!” for one of the corners, but it might help you when you’re trying to solidify the novel’s style to make rewriting it easier. 


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