Tone, Tonal Shift, & How to Write Them
How do you shift tone in the middle of a book to keep pace with what is going on or shift tone between projects you are writing? How can you manipulate the tone to show emotional and intellectual development of a character, or to display without stating it flat out that said character is becoming more politically aware? I have read several novels which do this but cannot figure out how they do it.
This is one of the hardest questions I’ve ever gotten, because it’s also something I’ve struggled with in my own writing. So I took it as a challenge to see what I could learn, to benefit both lacommunarde and myself. And, of course, all of you!
First and foremost, what does tone really even mean? I thought about it as I read (tone is apparent in all writing, not just fiction/prose), and tooled around the internet a bit, and it’s a pretty elevated and complicated concept. This is the hybrid definition that I came up with, as it applies to fiction:
Tone & Pacing
As internet folks we have all run into the problem at some time or another when we’re talking to someone and the tone just doesn’t get across right. Capslock, bold, underlining and italicizing can help to an extent in conversation, but if you’re trying to pull off an excited tone to your story you aren’t going to want to put the whole thing in caps. So what can you do to get the tone right? How does tone even work? To answer these questions let’s start by dissecting what tone is and how it’s used.
So how can we define tone? It’s essentially the attitude you’re talking about the subject you’re writing. So touching on a previous week’s prompt where I asked you to write describing the scenery around your PoV character as they visited a place they used to frequent with a friend (who just died). The whole piece hinged on the tone you took with it. Maybe the character felt at peace with their friend’s death and looking at this scenery exemplified this feeling, maybe looking at this place they used to play in brought back a barrage of melancholy feelings which would have come through in the way they viewed the area around them.
That all has to do with tone, the tone you took in writing that piece should have jived with what you were trying to convey. If you were writing in an upbeat tone and trying to evoke sad emotions within your reader—that can take a fair bit of craft to pull off a tone dissonant with the response you wish to create.
How related is tone of voice to story tone? Well let’s put it this way, if we’re talking face-to-face and I’m using a flat tone of voice to convey something to you, but I mean to be sarcastic you might not get that sarcasm and take the information seriously. Similarly with tone in a story. If you’re writing about a dramatic point in your character’s life, maybe it’s the climax of the action in the story and their best friend just got shot—if you’re writing in a comedic tone your readers will likely not feel hit as hard emotionally and sympathize as well with your protagonist’s loss if your tone falls flat.This doesn’t just apply to the high-drama scenes this is for your entire piece of work. If you want to write a high-anxiety impact story you’re not really going to want to go for a slow, meandering type of narrative.
Which leads me nicely into talking about pacing. Pacing is pretty much just what it sounds like, I’m sure many of you heard at some point in your life “pace yourself” and this is kinda the same thing. Every scene is important to the story, or well, every scene that lives through your final edits should be important to the story. And equally important is the pacing within each scene.
Let’s say you’re right in the climax of your story, the high point of the action right there when Harry is facing off with the basilisk. if Harry were to suddenly, instead of continuing to run from and chase the basilisk through the piping/dungeon down there, take a sit and think about how the giant snake could even go through the pipes; well you’d be breaking up the build up of anxiety the action of the scene was heading toward and then you’d have you reader wondering just how much danger Ginny and everyone must really be in if Harry has time to futz around instead of defeating Tom Riddle’s spectra.
You need to pace yourself; you need to pace your scenes. So if you have a high intensity scene don’t break up your pacing to unload a block of text giving background for why your character has this knife in their boot and the history of their mother giving it to them before she died. This is not the time for that infodump, that time was likely way before this action scene—back when things were more calm and you could just insert that bit of information off the cuff then. And then in the fight scene maybe the character takes the knife out and feels a little stronger because of it, and we know why already because of the history.
But don’t break up the pacing of a scene to inundate us with information, weave it in so it flows with the pacing and tone of your story.
Further reading for you: