Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Each piece of fiction, each section of text, has a particular feel. The feel of a story or scene is primarily achieved through three elements—tone, mood, and style. And while you may hear the words used almost interchangeably, they are different. They are achieved differently and they create different effects.
We’ll take a look at all three.
Tone in fiction is the attitude of the narrator or viewpoint character toward story events and other characters. In a story with first-person POV, tone can also be the narrator’s attitude toward the reader.
In non-fiction, tone is the writer’s attitude toward subject matter and reader. So the writer might come across as a know-it-all or a blowhard or as humble or solicitous.
We’re all familiar with a mother’s words to her mouthy son—Don’t you take that tone with me, young man.
What does the mother mean by tone here? She’s talking about his sassy or smart-alecky attitude. The child’s words and actions and facial expressions convey an attitude his mother doesn’t approve of.
Examples of tone you might find in fiction are strident, uncaring, sassy, bossy, unconcerned, or flip. Remember that these refer to the narrator’s (viewpoint character’s) attitude.
A scene’s or story’s tone, expressed through the narrator’s attitude, could as easily be one of fearlessness or fearfulness, disbelief or detachment, or maybe unconcern or snarkiness or arrogance. Whatever attitude the narrator can take on, the scene or story can take on.
Tone is achieved through word choice (diction), sentence construction and word order (syntax), and by what the viewpoint character focuses on. Tone is created or altered by the way the viewpoint character/narrator treats the story problem and other characters, and by the way he responds to the events surrounding him. Tone can be manipulated by changing what the narrator focuses on and through his changing reactions to what is going on in the story as well as by changing the words used for his thoughts, action, and dialogue.
The tone of a scene can also be affected by manipulation of the sense elements. So what the viewpoint character smells and how those odors affect him influence tone. The menace of unrelenting footsteps on wooden stairs in the middle of the night or the hurried thud of footsteps down a dark alley would contribute to a tone different from the one created by the sounds of a toddler running down the hall to meet his daddy at the door. The viewpoint character’s perception of and reaction to sights, sounds, odors, touch, and taste add to tone.
What’s absent from a story can affect tone almost as strongly as what is present. Exclude the narrator’s attitude toward someone he loves if you want to portray him as distant and unfeeling; add in this attitude when it’s time to reveal this facet of his personality. When you give him a scene with his love interest, it can have a tone far different from those in other scenes featuring the same character.
He might notice his lover’s soft skin or the colors she uses or her smile, things he doesn’t notice or comment on in other scenes. Keeping a tender attitude far from him in scenes when he’s away from his lover will reveal much of who he is and perhaps how much he relies on her to humanize him.
Reactions and Demeanor
How does the narrator or viewpoint character come across? How does he respond to story events and revelations?
Is he desperate, upbeat, dismissive? Is he clueless or callous or indifferent?
To create a tone that works, word choices have to match the character and the moment. So if a character is desperate, his actions, thoughts, and words should reflect that desperation. What he thinks about should reveal his desperation. Tone should be consistent until something happens to change the narrator’s perceptions and responses.
If a scene seems off in a way that you can’t pinpoint or fix through changes in plot or character or dialogue, if it simply feels wrong or off, check to see if you’ve been consistent with tone (with mood as well). If you’ve inadvertently set up opposing tones within a scene, it will feel not quite right, maybe as if it’s out of focus or, more likely, as if a sheet of glass had shattered and the pieces were off kilter just a hair.
Note: If an event occurs that affects the viewpoint character, he should have a response and respond according to his character. When a viewpoint character doesn’t respond, it’s as if the event did not take place. But when the character reacts, his response and his attitude not only show what he’s feeling and identify what’s important to him, but also affect the reader’s response and feelings.
Purposes of Tone
Use tone, the viewpoint character’s attitude, in every scene to deepen the reader’s connections to the events of that scene and to the character.
Reveal character personality and motivation through tone; a person’s response, including the level and duration of the response, tells a lot about that person. The attitude a person takes on is one of his major responses to events and stimuli. Use it to reveal your characters.
A scene that’s light on tone markers or that has a mixed tone will either hold readers at a distance or have them confused, neither of which is ideal when you want to draw a reader deep into story.
Tone can change over the course of a story, as the viewpoint character grows or changes, but every scene should have a tone, a feel, that’s generated by the attitude of the viewpoint character, and that could hold fairly steady for much of the story. That is, until events start shaking up the character.
A story as a whole will also have a tone, a particular feel.
Use tone to differentiate scenes between viewpoint characters. So while Irving’s attitude is whiney, Pete’s can be overbearing. Use word choices and the unique events and story elements that each character focuses on to play up the different tones.
A long list of tones (attitude), but by no means an exhaustive one—
Mood is what the reader feels while reading a scene or story. It’s not the reader’s emotions, but the atmosphere (the vibe) of a scene or story. It’s what the reader reads or feels or notices. Not all readers would necessarily report the same mood from a scene, although the writer does hope to achieve a particular feel common to every reader.
Mood can be expressed in terms such as dark, light, rushed, suspenseful, heavy, lighthearted, chaotic, and laid-back.
The mood of each scene can differ from that of the scene before, but you will want some consistency. Yet, as the story approaches the climax, the intensity levels should change. Readers should feel that story events are coming to a head. While there should be several points in your story at which the mood darkens or grows more menacing or more comical, readers should feel a bigger change as the story heads to its conclusion. (This feel of events rushing toward a conclusion can also be directed by pace, by a reduced emphasis on general setting details, by to-the-point dialogue, and several other factors. Mood is just one element that pulls the reader toward the story’s end.)
I typically suggest that writers examine their manuscripts around the two-thirds mark. If the feel of the story doesn’t change somewhere near this point, do some rewriting. You can make gradual changes to mood or you could change the level in large steps, but do make changes, both to indicate that the high point is indeed approaching and so readers can feel the shift.
Keep in mind that mood has to change for a reason and that something must happen even to provoke an intensity change. Something must be different to make sense of any mood change, whether the change is from mood to mood or level to level.
This change can be a physical event or a character’s sudden recognition of the meaning of an earlier event or another character’s remark.
If you’ve got several story threads or subplots featuring different viewpoint characters, the mood could switch each time you move from one subplot to the other.
While using strongly different moods is a marvelous way to differentiate story threads and the scenes of different viewpoint characters, do be aware that readers have to adjust each time you change. The adjustment might be smooth or jarring, and either kind of change could work for the story, but don’t forget that it may be difficult for readers to adapt to a new mood at the turn of a page. If they’re caught up in your fiction (and manipulating mood is a great way to keep them involved), they may not want to leave the dark scenes featuring your antagonist for a relatively lighter scene featuring the main character’s sidekick. Use what you know of human nature and your own feelings toward such changes to decide how and when to introduce scenes of different moods.
While both mood and tone can change over the course of story, tone is the more consistent element. Since it’s the attitude of the narrator, tone won’t change as often as mood can.
A list of moods (atmosphere)—
Style is the third element used for creating or changing the feel of a story or scene, though it’s a bit different from tone and mood because it’s used to affect and create the other two elements.
Style as we’re defining it here is the way the writer uses words to create not only the events of story, but their feel as well. A writer’s style is evident in his use of diction—word choices—and syntax—word order and sentence construction. A style is the writer’s method to create mood and tone, the feel of fiction. Style is also dependent on subject matter, what a write might explore and what he’d never write about. For example, one writer might never feature a pedophile in a story, another might write one as a heinous monster, and yet another might write one as a tortured soul.
One writer might feature children in his works, another cowboys, and another serial killers or detectives or archaeologists. Some writers write only about paranormal beings while others write only of humans.
One writer might focus on contemporary events while others might think only of imagined scenarios. Some writers might look to the past and others to the future.
Genre too can play a part in style. Genre can affect word choice, subject matter, setting requirements and taboos, and the style of a story’s ending (happily ever after or tear-fest or death of a major character).
Note: Non-fiction writers have their own styles as well. And it may be easier to identify a writer’s style in a magazine article or other piece of writing than it is in fiction. For example, if the writer of a magazine or blog article is patronizing, readers notice right away.
Every writer’s style is peculiar to him, yet he can alter that style to create the effects needed for a scene or any other piece of writing.
If he needs a scholarly style, he’ll choose words and sentence rhythms to create such a style. If he wants to sound like an aw-shucks country boy, he’ll choose words to convey that feel.
The writer can use jargon, words readers are comfortable with, to help those readers feel at home with his approach or conclusions, even if he writes about a topic the readers disagree with. Or the writer might use uncommon words to make readers feel ignorant or out of place or to make himself (and what he writes) seem more valuable.
A writer might adopt a formal style, with few contractions, though I don’t recommend this for fiction. People of all eras and ages have used contractions, so it wouldn’t be unusual for almost any character to use them. And their use is simply easier on the reader, allowing him to move through the text without unnecessary pauses. (There are exceptions, of course.)
In one story, a writer might use a lot of verbals (verbs used as something other than a verb), including gerunds, participles, and infinitives. She might use a lot of absolute phrases or use none. She might use short sentences, long sentences, one-word paragraphs or five-page paragraphs. Whatever choices she makes that deal with word choice and how words are arranged in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs is the writer’s style.
If she never uses adverbs or adjectives, that’s a style choice. If she uses three or four every sentence, that’s also a style choice. (One I try to discourage in every situation unless a character would use them to excess or as a way to create a deliberately bad sentence.)
Other style choices—
Using the definite article the for every noun or never using it
Writing long, involved complex sentences (or not)
Including euphemisms in place of bold cuss words
Having a character cussing every other line or word
Using irony or sarcasm or a question and answer format
Using common workhorse words in place of elegant words, or doing the opposite
Accenting repetition in words or phrases or patterns
Favoring simile or metaphor
Using alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme, assonance and other typically poetic techniques
Choosing lush descriptions over sparse ones or vice versa
Accenting or highlighting one fiction element (dialogue, action, description, and so forth) over another
Going heavy (or light) on foreshadowing or flashbacks or back story
Each of these style decisions has an impact on both tone and mood, and using different combinations of them can create stories that feel wildly different from one another.
This is why a dozen writers could begin with the same premise and write unique stories that sound nothing alike—that feel nothing alike.
Style, tone, and mood combine to make your stories your own, something no one else could create. And if you changed the tone or mood of multiple scenes or of a story as a whole, you’d create a new story quite unlike the original.
This is one reason paying attention to mood and tone are important—including the wrong elements, wrong in terms of what you’re trying to achieve, means the story won’t turn out the way you intend it to. Yes, you can make changes (or you might like what you ended up with better than what you’d wanted in the first place and decide to keep it), but if you plan ahead, learn a bit about how to establish and manipulate tone and mood, you wouldn’t have to try to figure out where the story went off-track after the fact.
A list of styles—
Note: Some of the words that reflect style could also reflect tone; some mood words could describe a writer’s style. Whatever tone, mood, and style you decide on for your stories, realize that those elements contribute to the story’s feel.
Recognize that even if you don’t purposely create tone and mood, they are still created for your stories and scenes. They may be muddled and the cause of weak responses to your fiction, but they’re there, in the story. Make a point to purposely work tone and mood to the story’s advantage by your style choices. And once you’re ready to rewrite and edit, check each scene for mood and tone. Make sure you’re not sending mixed signals about either.
Bring all the elements together to work for your stories.
Write captivating, cohesive fiction.
The very quick list—
Tone—viewpoint character’s attitude
Mood—atmosphere felt by the reader
Style—word choices and word arrangements made by the writer