Expressing tone in your writing

Setting tone in your stories is one thing, but expressing it is another thing entirely.

When we talk about tone, it generally means the overall quality, exposition and pitch of the writing and the value it brings to the narrative in terms of what it gives to the reader because they need to understand the tone of your novel or story.

The tone is about the writer’s ability to covey thoughts and feelings in relation to the themes that make up the story.  Often writers confuse tone with mood and ‘voice’, but although these aspects complement each other in fiction writing, there are subtle differences between them, and they both have different roles to play within the narrative. 

‘Voice’ is the essence and individual style of the writer coming through the narrative. Mood however, (and its close relation, atmosphere), is the effect created by the writer to evoke a range feelings within the reader – horror, sadness, humour, empathy and compassion etc.

The real importance here is how writers express the tone of the story and how they achieve this.

How do you create Tone?

Think about the tone of someone’s voice when in conversation. The pitch often changes, some words are emphasised by elongation or shortening them and their sounds change, depending on the person’s mood and reactions. 

So in fiction writing, it’s also about choosing the right words in order to convey the right meaning. It’s about the right exposition - emphasising words, changing the sound of them and varying the pitch and pace of them all help create tone.

The nature of a story’s tone is also dictated by the genre.  Romance writers lean towards softer narrative with and fulsome phraseology.  Horror writers will use darker words and emphasise certain words while thriller writers might use tight, concise exposition to create a fast paced tone.

For instance, compare these two paragraphs:-

She looked up from between crinkled sheets at the hazy light forming a seductive veil around the figure sitting by the window. Soft glow highlighted his strong features…
Now the other example:

She snatched the sheets aside and got out of bed.  The rain had stopped, but low light sprinkled the cool maw that clung to the room and bathed her face in a grey cloud…

You can see in the first example how the right words express the tone of narrative, even without knowing what kind of genre it is – words like ‘hazy light’, ‘seductive veil’ and ‘strong features’ all tell us the tone here is about romance.  When compared with the second example, the choice of words is different, the exposition is tight and the use of dark colours clearly tells the reader the kind of tone to expect.
Tone can be delivered in the following ways:

·        Using the right descriptive words
·        Use of imagery – colours and sounds, shadows and light etc.
·        Symbolism
·        Metaphor
·        Pacing and flow of sentences

More examples expressing different tones:
The sound of his mother’s whimpers carried through the musk-laden darkness like a creeping fog, and each hour that passed, her pain whittled against the silence. Locked behind the attic door, he listened as her voice slowly trailed off…
From this example you can hear the dark undercurrent in this extract, emphasised through the choice of words, the pace and flow of the sentences and how they’re pitched. 

Try this example:
Molly jumped against the soft walls of the bouncy castle and she rebounded, falling into a heap with the other children.  Her laugh mingled with a cacophony of voices, like a colourful kaleidoscopic melee…

This example is more buoyant and lighter in tone, made effective simply through choice of words.  Imagine if I had used a different tone:

Molly fell against the walls of the bouncy castle and she rebounded, falling into a heap with the other children.  Her screams mingled with a cacophony of voices, like the screech of caged cats…
See how the tone has dramatically changed, just through the use of different words?  That’s why tone is important in your narrative – the right tone.

You can see how easy tone and mood and authorial voice seem very similar, but each has its own role to play in the composition of a story. And where tone is concerned, once you know the precise nature of the scene you want to craft for your characters, then you can create the right tone.

Next week: Does there have to be a moral to every story?


  1. Interesting and not what I was expecting. You're describing an author's style and tone in words. "It stank of stale piss" or "Stale urine tainted the air"; scene painting with words and the overall tone of the work.

    I was expecting a discussion of TOV in dialogue.

    I am not disappointed and TOV in dialogue is more complex.

    Thanks for the great, stimulating blog.

    1. Hi Bryn. Interesting comments. TOV in dialogue v narrative is different and, as you say, more complex. That's for another article, methinks!

      But glad you enjoyed the article.


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