How Do I Write Tone?

By S.A. Stovall

You may already know this, but writing a novel takes a lot of work, and 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 by this checklist with little difficulty, but others (like myself) have to keep a careful eye on certain aspects of their writing. One area I wanted to improve was “tone.”

And let me say, nothing is as nebulous as the advice, “Remember to set the tone in your novel.”

“What does that even mean?” I asked myself.

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 sentences describing a garden.

Example 1:

The garden had two water fountains and 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, the 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, the 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.

And let me tell you, for my debut novel, Vice City, I wanted to capture the noir tone, and sometimes that can be tricky. Noir is often gritty, tense, and filled with a slight air of mystery, typically involving grisly murders and corrupt cops. It’s not truly noir without that distinct tone.

I got it all in the story, don’t worry, but I had to be mindful!

Thankfully, I think Vice City is made all the better because I took the time to really get a grasp on the craft of writing or, at least, this tiny portion of the craft. Like I said, there’s a million things to keep in mind when writing a novel.

S.A. Stovall grew up in California’s central valley with a single mother and little brother. Despite no one in her family having a degree higher than a GED, she put herself through college (earning a BA in History), and then continued on to law school where she obtained her Juris Doctorate. As a child, Stovall’s favorite novel was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. The adventure on a deserted island opened her mind to ideas and realities she had never given thought before—and it was the moment Stovall realized that story telling (specifically fiction) became her passion. Anything that told a story, be it a movie, book, video game or comic, she had to experience. Now, as a professor and author, Stovall wants to add her voice to the myriad of stories in the world, and she hopes you enjoy.

You can contact her at the following addresses.

Twitter: @GameOverStation


And to learn more about Vice City, click on the cover below: