If the Batman movies have proven anything, it’s that tone can make or break a film. Compared to the 1930s campy Batman comics, the movies can seem pretty gritty. Looking at all of the films that have been released since 1980, a lot of tones are present. Tim Burton’s Batman movies are quirky, dark, and morbidly comic. Batman and Robin and Batman Forever are almost comedies. They don’t take themselves seriously and are loud both in their script and in their visual tone. The Dark Knight trilogy is all grit and no glamour. The same story has been told by different directors and with different tones. See how much of a difference it makes?
How do I write tone into my novel?
The tone of your novel is determined almost strictly by word choice. Tone is something that is often overlooked when working on a draft, and it can make or break your novel. Since your readers can’t see your novel, you have to use your word choice to not only set the mood but also the tone. By deciding what kind of voice you want to have in your work early on, you can determine how you’re going to seem to your audience. Your genre and your field will also determine what kind of tone, but when writing fiction the choice is yours. By selecting your words carefully when you write, you can start to build a recognizable tone and style that will make your work sound like you.
What is tone?
Tone is a combination of a couple of things: it can be mood, voice, and descriptors. By choosing words that fit your theme, you can shape your prose into something that connects your readers with the setting, whether that be in a good or a bad way. Because your readers can’t see your work (it’s not a film nor a graphic novel), you have to bring the visuals to their mind. Depending on your genre, you may want to consider using specific words or sentence structures. In fiction, Science Fiction can be very dry. H.G. Wells described every working part of his prototype submarine. Science Fiction readers expect this dryness. Young Adult Fantasy, on the other hand, is very casual. A lot of authors choose to be friends with their readers, as though they’re having a conversation.
Tone is easy to spot when you’re looking for it. You’ve been reading this article… so have you noticed my tone? I aim for something more conversational. What if I switched my tone to something more formal? The first thing you may see as a reader is that my use of conjunctions goes away. I also eliminate adverbs and choose to use larger, more verbose words. My punctuation becomes form, and my sentences choppy. The conversation between you as the reader and I as the author stops, and the article becomes a how-to rather than a conversation.
NOT VERY FUN, IS IT?
Your tone can make or break your novel. If a reader picks up a book expecting gritty Sci-Fi and is greeted with something more friendly, it may turn them off. If an eleven-year-old picks up a Middle Grade Fantasy book off o the shelf only to find huge words and technical jargon, they won’t read it.
What tools can I use to write tone?
The first thing to look at when writing tone is your adjective use. Adjectives can change a scene from something very pleasant to something very unpleasant in the blink of an eye. Use of adjectives can shape a scene in a way your readers can use to imagine your scene in a way that you intended. Adjectives are descriptors that accompany nouns, so if you don’t know what those are, I would suggest reading up on them!
Next, remove your adverbs. Many writing coaches will tell you that adverbs are the devil. I would agree to some extent, and when I write I don’t necessarily remove all of them. In my early days of writing, I relied WAY too much on adverbs, and removing them made my writing seem more professional. I still enjoy a casual tone in all of my work, so some of them stay. By replacing your adverbs with solid and descriptive verbs, you can drastically change your tone. For example, you can change “walked slowly” to “crept” and that creates a much more powerful sentence.
Michael walked slowly to the fridge. vs Michael crept to the fridge.
See? One’s much spookier. Adverbs are like adjectives for verbs, and if you’re not familiar with them, crack open Google and go do some research!
A third trick for working with tone is noun choice. I’m talking about busting open your good friend the thesaurus. With a thesaurus, shine can become luster, blood can become gore, and frown can become glower. Using different words than you would in day-to-day conversation can really beef up a novel. If your writing feels dull or boring, a thesaurus will be your best friend!
What are good examples of tone?
In order to best demonstrate this, I Googled a random image of a cave. This is even better for you guys because you can’t see what I got as an image. I’m going to describe the cave to you all in three different lenses. The first will be exactly as I see it with no fluff. The second will be through the lens of a gritty horror novel, and the third as if I were writing a YA Fantasy. Are you ready?
A cave sat on the water. Red rocks made up the bottom with chalky residue on it and sharp, grey spikes came from the top of the cave. Right side of the cave was made up of chalky rock, and the hole seemed to be thirty feet deep. The water was blue and shallow, and water dripped from the top of the cave into the water. The hole was not wide enough for a boat to fit through. The waters chopped at its mouth.
While the sun shone on the outside of the mouth of the cave, a black hole gaped in the rock, too small for a boat. Red rock crawled up the left side of the cave, littered with chalky residue and pockmarks that resembled the size and shape of human skulls. The water cut at the sides of the cave wall, foaming and rabid, and the right side of the cave heaved and bulged as if the cliff above weighed too much. Water dripped from monstrous black teeth of sharp stone that jutted from the top of the cave, sharp enough to cut skin. Teal water led into the darkness, only to turn obsidian in the darkness. And the back of the throat, black. Blacker than any lightless place on earth.
Salty spray splashed back up onto the boat as it neared the entrance of the cave. After weeks of searching, the lagoon’s teal waters lead to mystery and darkness, but hopefully something better. Terracotta rocks led into the mouth of the cave, glittering like jewels in the sunlight and seawater, and the blue of the gulf reflected back up onto the white, ashy rock deeper in the cave, glimmering cerulean. Dragon’s teeth dove from the top of the cave, solidified by time, and water dripped down from them as if some hungry mouth salivated still for human flesh to eat. In the throat of the cave, danger awaited, as it always did. Danger… but treasure.
When should I use tone?
The simple answer is EVERYWHERE. Your writing should seem uniform through your whole piece. Don’t be reserved with your tone. If you include it in some areas and then not in others, your writing will seem disjointed and choppy. A line editor can assist you with making sure your tone is uniform all the way through and make sure you’re consistent. If you can’t get a line editor to edit your work, at least send it to a beta reader that can give you an honest opinion of it!
Tone is one of the great backbones of writing, and is something that takes practice! A fun exercise is to grab a random image and do exactly what I did above. Take three genres and write your photo as if you’re writing with those specifications. Really push your word choice and consider every sentence. Do you have examples of tone that you’re really proud of? I’d love to see your work. Share in the comments!