anyway, and why will your book suffer if you don't know how to use them?
Fiction or nonfiction, fantasy or romance, action or comedy. What subconscious feelings are you giving your audience? What flavor do they taste when they set the book down for the night? What makes your romance scene feel different than your scene of quiet despair?
An ability to control tone and mood is one of the things that sets great writers above good writers. This post is part of a series of editors' terms that you may hear among the writing community but might never have seen defined. It's also going to do double duty as part of my master series about literary devices that you may not notice at first, but which can make the difference between a good story and a phenomenal one. Come back soon for more posts in these series!
What is this "tone" thing that I'm talking about all the time?
Tone is the "flavor" a reader gets from your character's or narrator's voice and the writing style of your manuscript. It is a result of the cumulative effect of sentence stucture, word choice, dialogue and events on how your reader experiences the manuscript. It's often talked about in terms of attitude: both the characters' attitudes toward the events happening and the narrator's attitude towards the characters can affect tone.
Tone could be represented by the delightful snarkiness in your narrator's voice that keeps people interested in a scene about the main character's boring ex. Or, it could be the dissatisfaction your high school character feels on prom night even though everything seems to be going perfectly.
Mood is related to tone, but it has less to to with attitude and writing style and more to do with the overall emotion of either a scene or the book overall—rather than a stylistic flavor, it's more of an emotional flavor.
If you have vivid dreams, you might remember a feeling that seems to permeate any specific dream, something between a taste and an emotion. (Then again, maybe that's just me.) Many writers have a sense for developing this kind of flavor in their scenes. This can be the verisimilitude that makes readers feel they're really experiencing Victorian England in your period piece. It might be why the old abandoned church at the end of the lane feels spooky even though nothing bad has happened there...yet.
Both tone and mood contribute to this flavor, and they can be hard to differentiate. (I confess, I'm guilty of using them interchangeably upon occasion.) But however you choose to define their nuances, they're instrumental to creating fiction that makes people feel.
What's so important about mood and tone?
Part of the reason I chose to write this post is that pretty much all of the other blog posts I have tried to write include at least one sentence about tone. And yet, I find it a concept that's rarely defined or discussed outside of academia. Let’s fix that!
A lack of control over tone and mood is not something that I notice immediately when editing a manuscript; it usually comes to me when I'm pondering why the action scenes didn't make my pulse pound, why the reveal of the big mysterious artifact seemed rushed, or why the writer thought it was okay to use a plain old silly word in their sex scene. Many of the other literary devices in the piece may seem completely unrelated, and completely competent, making me wonder why everything still falls kind of flat as a whole—until I realize that a writer isn't considering what their choices are doing to the mood of the piece. Aha.
Both the tone and mood of your writing influence your readers’ emotions on a subconscious level. The reason readers come to your world is to experience something that only lives in your book—to feel something. And a strongly developed mood is one of the best ways to take them away from reality and immerse them in your world.
1. Tone and mood can help convey important emotional messages to the reader.
As much as I hate clichés, I’m going to start with one that still holds weight. Remember "show, don't tell"? You should, because it’s a clear and practical rule for writing evocative fiction. The simplest reason to work on your tone and mood is to show readers, rather than telling them, emotional information.
When you introduce your reader to your book or your scene, you're plunging them into the world of the character. Your job as a writer is to create prose that takes hold of them, lets them smell the roses and taste the rain. That’s why you wouldn't want to establish your plot by saying, "Jean saw a tentacled space monster and decided to follow it around town." That’s explaining rather than creating an experience.
In the same way, you wouldn't want to tell the reader, "Jean was curious, quirky and clever," "this is a humorous children's story so you don't need to worry too much about the alien disemboweling Jean," or "Jean's kitchen was really boring and ordinary compared to what they thought the alien's spaceship would look like." These are emotional cues that you want your reader to pick up on without even realizing that you've thrown them a bone.
In the kitchen, Jean got a bowl of Value-Os, which tasted like cardboard, and stared at the white wall, still spattered with a couple red splotches from last night's marinara disaster. What did blue floppy octo-monsters eat? Spaghetti? Fish? Glitter? It probably had a robo-chef that could whip up any flavor in the galaxy and squeeze it out into a sparkly paste that contained all the food groups you’d ever need. Jean bet that the rocketship's walls didn't have to be white for resale value. They looked down and realized their spoon had slid down the side of the bowl and vanished into the puddle of store-brand cereal.
In this paragraph, I tried to show all the information from the three sentences in the paragraph above. I tailored my words to a younger audience, thought about what a creative and quirky young person might call things in their internal narration, and added small disappointments all over the kitchen. Hopefully, the combination of word choices and thought processes also created a unique “flavor” for the scene. The tone I'm going for is youthful and quirky. The mood of the scene is curiosity mingled with disappintment.
Thinking about mood and tone allows you to construct your scenes around showing readers more than just what is happening. You might even find that searching for ways to show these emotional subtleties without telling the reader can drive your scene in new directions, allowing the characters to express themselves and fleshing out their world.
2. Without cues from emotional information, readers might not be tuned in to your plot.
Letting people experience what the protagonist is feeling is a useful and beautiful skill. But it isn't only useful for "feelings." Sometimes these subconscious cues are telling readers a lot more about the plot than you might think. Tone and mood can be crucial to creating readers’ expectations about a scene—and it can help tell them what to do with the information they're being given.
Say it's your opening paragraph, and your main character has just killed somebody. As readers, we should be horrified. Or should we? This is fiction; it's okay for us to be happy about a dead body once in a while. Even before you explain what’s happening, the way you write about that dead body can help readers learn about the character’s attitude about her victim—and what they should expect next.
There's more blood than usual. That linoleum is going to be ruined; it'd be a problem if it weren't already so ugly. My fault—my knife slipped on the tongue. Amateur mistake, and it left the dead guy with an ugly, flopping gash in his cheek, too.
The flippant tone of voice here is telling us that the main character has done this before and is not too worried about the outcome. While hopefully there's plenty of interest in why she is chopping out somebody's tongue, you should get the sense that this large amount of blood is a minor setback and nothing is amiss—so you don't need to worry about cops charging into the scene in the next paragraph. Compare it to my next attempt:
There's blood pooling on the floor, staining the cheap linoleum. I'm cutting through the dead man's tongue when the knife slips, slicing his cheek open, flicking congealing blood up into my face. I spit, but not quick enough to avoid the sickly copper tang on my lips.
This one should be noticeably more serious. The basic information remains the same (okay, okay, I got a little carried away with the last part...) but hopefully you get the impression that while the protagonist may be focused, she is distinctly not thrilled to be cutting this dead guy's tongue out. The seriousness of the tone changes the mood of the scene: if the character is taking the matter seriously, even if readers don't know why yet, they’re likely to be concerned about consequences, making the scene more tense.
With a good control of tone and mood, you can influence reader expectations—and therefore, tension—in any number of ways. In a romance novel, a gloomy office day could be interrupted by the sight of a new coworker brightening up the daily briefing meeting with his smile. Readers will be keyed in to the fact that he's the love interest partially because he shifts the mood of the scene.
Similarly, a change in the mood of a moment can convey to readers that they are witnessing key information that they should remember for later—or you can hide a significant clue in plain sight by mentioning it in such a bland tone that nobody notices until later.
3. Tone and mood deeply affect how much the reader cares about what’s happening in your story.
So far, we’ve been over how tone creates emotional subtext. This can set up scenes, provide information, and draw readers into the plot, but it also serves another function: making them feel connected enough to care. Even if your plot is crystal clear and intense things are happening, readers won’t be pulled into it when they don’t feel emotionally connected. And one easy way of pulling somebody away from their empathy for a character is having a mismatch between the writing mood and the events that are happening.
Imagine your main character has a wonderful day with friends at the fair, then comes home and learns about a family member's murder. (Let’s assume it’s not a family member they despised.) You want these two scenes to be different—jarringly. If you don’t change up your sentence structure, your verbs and adjectives, your pacing, you’re missing a chance to let the reader experience this difference.
Telling the audience that the main character’s parent or sibling is dead isn’t necessarily enough to make them sad. If your writing itself doesn't reflect the character’s change of mood, your reader will have a harder time feeling his pain. Worse, they may interpret this as a lack of feeling entirely, and come out of the experience wondering why the character doesn't care as much about his loved one as he should. If he doesn’t care, why should they?
Empathy is a powerful tool to help readers understand character motivation. While they don’t have to agree with whatever the protagonist is doing, they do have to understand their motives enough to find their actions believable, and, to some degree, to be able to make predictions and guesses about what they’ll do next.
If a dazzling new invention is unveiled in your steampunk novel, but you don't change the mood of the scene to highlight how much awe it inspires in the protagonist, readers may not realize how important it is for the plot; and they may not understand when your character feels compelled to break into her boss’s laboratory to fiddle with it. They’ll be left thinking that only an idiot would risk her entire livelihood just to look at a piece of technology.
The Last Word
By now I've read a decent amount of books where the writer is competent at telling me what happens, the dialogue is great, and what's happening in the story is interesting, but I am just not getting the feeling of it. This is clearly not a deal-breaker—many of these books are published and well received. But it’s also a bit of a shame. There’s a whole world of emotional sensation that those books are missing out on.
Tone and mood leave subtle impressions on readers: glances, feelings and flavors. But these subtle impressions can have large impacts. They can develop your world, foreshadow your plot, and help your readers understand character motivations—or simply scare them, turn them on, or amuse them. If you aspire to master wordcraft, to truly provoke deep feelings within readers and leave their minds resonating with your writing for days afterward, tone and mood are going to be some of your secret weapons.
Pantone image by Yanns on Pixabay. Used under creative commons CC0 license.