How often do you think about the tone of your writing? You probably don’t, but it’s something that enhances the story and creates different layers within the narrative.
Tone can work on different levels. There’s the main tone of the story and then there are undercurrents of tone, or undertones. The overall tone of the story is normally set out in the opening of the story and provides the reader with an idea of what kind of story it is – a horror, a romance, a thriller etc., and it can provide the pitch and resonance of the story to come. You can create the feel of an entire novel with tone. For instance, the tone of horror novel could be portrayed as dark, sinister or oppressive. The tone of a thriller might be shown as fast and exciting, while a romance novel might be light and flowery. These are overtones – they highlight to the reader the type of novel they’re reading.
Then there are undertones – the mood, the attitude and the presence that your words can carry. Often, it’s all about how we say things, rather than what we say, so the right words, in the right way, help to express something explicit, or they infer something that is hidden within the narrative. This allows you to create the tone for important scenes, by focusing on different elements within the narrative, such as the background, individual characters and also the kind of description you use. This helps to create mood, atmosphere, emotion and context, which readers will notice, which in turn will draw them deeper into the story.
The background can be used to subtly hint different things to the reader, for example, there might be two characters meeting in a dark alley in the rain, so the underlying the might be one of trepidation and anxiety, or it might exude a sense of fear. In comparison, you might have a scene with characters sitting in the sun by a harbour, so the tone might show a calm and relaxed undercurrent and might show a sense of affection or love.
Vivid imagery is also a great tone builder – how you describe things, as well choosing the right descriptive words, can show the reader different connotations, shades, emotions and moods. The dark alley example might use longer descriptions that make use of a slow build up, with visuals the draw from the environment, such as dark colours and shadows and different sounds etc. The harbour scene could also make use of colours and sounds with colourful descriptions, but might also highlight scents – the ocean air and the smell of food.
In addition to background and description, character attitudes or actions are also useful to show tone. Their behaviours and traits and how they react to things can evoke different moods and emotions, which layer the narrative with an undercurrent – a certain tone. One character, for instance, might be moody and overbearing with another character, so the tone could be seen as fearful. Or you could have a character who is full of zest with others, which creates a warm, fun tone.
So when you’re constructing your scenes, remember that the background, the characters and the description can affect the tone of each scene. The overall tone of the story doesn’t change, but undertones can change as the story develops, with different themes and moods that expand within the story. These tones evolve as the story evolves, and that means your story can develop deeper and more complex layers for readers to enjoy.