How to Write Tone in Your Novel

You probably already know this, but writing a novel requires more than simply putting words to paper. 

You need characters (and not just any characters – likeable characters, realistic characters, believable characters!), you need a plot (complete, new, fresh!), you need to do your research (guns, buildings, cars, political structure, laws, and even food), and you need to keep a decent pace and not bore your reader with unnecessary detail.

And don’t use too many adverbs!

And have a unique voice!

And remember to keep a consistent tone!

Some authors fly through this checklist with little difficulty, but others have to keep a careful eye on certain aspects of their writing. This article is to help any author (fiction, non-fiction) improve their “tone.”

Let’s face it, nothing is as nebulous as the advice, “Remember to set the tone in your novel.”

“What does that even mean?” many ask themselves.

Just like Justice Potter Stewart famously described obscenity by saying “I’ll know it when I see it,” so it is with tone. You know when it’s there, but it’s difficult to articulate what’s missing when there’s no tone at all.

Take a look at these two descriptions of a garden.

Example 1:

The garden had two water fountains. Four dozen rose bushes lined the fence, growing up the boards.

Example 2:

Rose bushes strangled the fence surrounding the garden’s broken water fountains. A decapitated head of a cherub gushed water across the walkway.

Right away you should notice a big difference—one garden feels ominous and foreboding, while the other is simply a garden. But like I said, you know tone when you see it, so how can you consistently capture it in your own work?

The key is manipulating the human brain.

People recall things through “associative memory,” a term in psychology used to define the ability to remember the relationship between unrelated items. When someone says the word blue, the mind links it to objects and concepts such as the sky, or eyes, or even the category of colors.

It’s this associative memory that plants the seed of tone in the reader.

Are you writing a tense thriller? One with murders and twists? Who is friend and who is foe?

In that case, you want a tone of uncertainty and anxiety, much like with our garden example above. To set that tone, you need to invoke feelings of unease within the reader without outright stating, “the character feels uneasy about this place, you guys.”

Let’s have another look at that example.

Rose bushes strangled the fence surrounding the garden’s broken water fountains. A decapitated head of a cherub gushed water across the walkway.

Words like strangled, broken, and decapitated paint the tone in the reader’s mind. These are words that our minds associate with negative and terrible things. The reader’s thoughts will immediately link to unsettling concepts, whether they do it consciously or not.

The same can be said about any genre. Are you writing a romance? Let’s look at another garden, this time with a charming tone.

Example 3:

Lovebirds played in the sparkling waters of the twin fountains, and roses grew in droves up the surrounding fence, the petals dappled with dew.

I probably don’t even need to point out the technique in this sentence, but for consistency’s sake, take note of how your mind shifts gears. Words like lovebirds, played, sparkling, and petals paint a picture of whimsy and romance, and nothing romantic is happening—it’s a single sentence about a garden.

By describing things through the lens of your desired tone, you can shape the reader’s experience. Things can be tense or romantic, even when the scene is otherwise mundane.

For my space opera, STAR MARQUE RISING, I capture the tone of gritty futuristic by including manipulated genetics, cybernetic machines insides of humans, and super humans engineered on the brink of space.

For my fantasy novel, KNIGHTMARE ARCANIST, I capture the tone of flintlock adventure by incorporating fantastical sights, guns, and pirate lingo.

Novels with a solid tone are often atmospheric, and leave a stronger impression on the reader. If you strive for it in your own work, I’m sure it’ll elevate you to the next level!

2 thoughts on “How to Write Tone in Your Novel

  1. Well-explained. Thanks!
    Would you say that there are perhaps two levels of tone: one broad umbrella tone for the entire piece, and then the tone of each scene, which can deviate from the meta-tone?
    Would you say that every single scene should have a clearly established tone, that no scene should be toneless?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I would definitely say there’s a large umbrella tone, as well as scene-specific. HOWEVER, the larger tone dictates the small scenes in a subtle way. Horror genre might have some romantic scenes, some heartfelt scenes, some calm scenes, but have a tone “slapstick whimsy” might damage the overall tone of the book, even for just a scene.

      The Three Stooges would’ve felt out of place for Gone Girl, just as having Pennywise the Evil Murdering Clown would feel out of place in a Harry Potter. Umbrella tone tells the reader that all small scenes won’t stray too far, even if other feelings are sometimes needed. :3

      Like

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