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How to Craft Tone Within Your Writing.

by Megan Wald


Books are alive. But what lives and breathes? The characters? The world? The adventures? A book is more than these single elements. The whole book is alive; the whole experience has a color, flavor, feel that haunts readers.


We all want to achieve this. We agonize over word choice, plot structure, character voices, but we also need to consider the book’s voice as a whole. In other words, the tone.


What is tone?

Tone is the feeling that a story is meant to evoke— the mood, the vibe, the experience we create for readers. It should be consistent throughout the book and may vary from project to project. Examples might include: suspenseful, romantic, gothic, etc.


Identifying Tone

Start with the genre. The genre and subgenre directly influence tone, eg. thriller, romance, mystery. Another way to identify tone is to create a Pinterst board, mood board, or playlist for your book. Then evaluate. What kind of images did you choose? Are they dark with a promise of adventure? Or are they daydreamy with love in the air? Listen to your songs. How do they make you feel? What emotions do they spark?


If you still can’t nail down your tone, don’t worry! Many authors don’t focus on tone until after the first draft is completed. At that point, it’s easier to identify and refine it.


Crafting Tone

Although tone can evolve naturally in a book, we can craft it intentionally with tools like these:

  • Setting description: a mountain chain could be “rising like sharpened teeth on the horizon” or “standing tall and rooted, unshaken in a world of chaos”. The setting element hasn’t changed but the feeling or tone has with the description.

  • Characters’ emotions: looking at those mountains might make the character gulp, or it might spark a fire of determination deep in their gut. We don’t always need to be subtle as with setting description— tell the readers exactly how to feel by the characters’ responses.

  • Pacing: sentence, paragraph, and chapter lengths shape the emotional response of the reader and elicit tone. Shorter, more clipped sentences feel more frantic and urgent compared to longer, more elaborate sentences that feel calm, romantic, or even lyrical.


Two Words of Caution

  1. Learn when to back off. The tension or romance can’t be dialed up to 100 in every scene. The reader will burn out and disengage. Give them a break every now and then.

  2. Don’t obsess over tone at the expense of the character, plot, or setting. Wait to fixate on tone until after the first draft or two.


Your Turn!

Using the elements we discussed, write the same scene three times: one with a tragic tone, one with a suspenseful tone, and one with a romantic tone. Use any scene from your current projects or write about a character who walks into a pawn shop to sell their most cherished possession.


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