Setting the Tone for a Novel or Story

Last week, I hit a bit of a brick wall with my WIP. Right at the end, too. At first, I thought it was fear, but then I realized that I wasn’t sure about the tone of my story, and that was throwing me off. Is this a romping romantic adventure, or is it a serious story that plumbs emotional depths?

This is especially tough for me because endings are usually the easy part for me. I can see the finish line, and I’m running toward it so fast I’m practically a speeding blur.

Tone is important to the climax and resolution of our stories. This year, I’m determined not just to write more drafts, but to write better drafts—in other words, first drafts that, while they’re still rough, don’t require major, sweeping rewrites or, worse, starting from scratch. Maybe I was a little overly ambitious to think that by plotting and planning, I could avoid the same sort of major overhauls previous manuscripts have required. (Hey, it’s live and learn, right?)

Without fully knowing the tone of our stories, it’s hard to keep writing. Resolutions are especially hard to get right without knowing the tone because the climax is where all the story threads meet.

It’s sort of a chemical reaction. If we don’t know the tone of the story, how do we know what will happen when we mix those things together? Will it be a hot, foamy mess or a massive explosion?

What can we do when this happens? I’m trying a few different approaches:

Identify the appropriate tone for the story.

Write a short sentence or paragraph about the overall feel/tone of our story. Is it a lighthearted, funny story? Is it gritty and dark? Is it a cozy mystery? Try to summarize this “feeling” in one or two sentences.

Daily Writing Tips offers this helpful tip:

The genre often determines the tone — thrillers use tight, lean phrasing, romances (hearty adventures as well as adventures of the heart) tend to be more effusive and expressive, comedies more buoyant, and so on. Some writing guides suggest that if you’re unsure about what tone to adopt for fiction, you visualize the book as a film — doesn’t everybody do that anyway these days? — and imagine what emotions or feelings its musical soundtrack would convey.

Read a few stories that have a tone similar to the one we’re aiming for.

Once we’ve settled on the appropriate tone, it helps to identify similar stories. Read closely and notice how all the different aspects of the story—the dialogue, the characterization, the setting, the description, the word choice—help to create the tone.

Identify where the tone is working in the story.

Forget about where the tone isn’t working. Where is it working? For example, I feel like the first chapter of my WIP sets the tone I want to convey in the rest of the story, and there’s a scene in the middle that has really snappy dialogue and great pacing that reflect what I’m looking for. Identifying and rereading those scenes can help us carry that tone through the next scene we’re working on.

Note: Plenty of authors advise not rereading while you’re writing a first draft. That’s great advice and probably works for a lot of people, but it’s not for me. Maybe it’s not for you either. For example, right now I know what I need to write. I know that I could sit down and write the ending. I also know that, until I get my bearings, that’s not the correct course of action—for me. Pressing pause for a few days won’t hurt my story or my process, and in fact, will probably help me avoid the worst of those massive rewrites.

Midweek ROW80 check-in

1ROW80Logocopy.) Finish a draft of Good, Old-Fashioned Magic: Wrote 972 words. Hopefully I start writing again later this week.

2.) Reading to hone my craft: Finished reading “2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love” by Rachel Aaron. I definitely recommend it. I also started the second to last chapter of Julia Cameron’s “Walking in This World.”

3.) Blog at least two times a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays: On target.

4.) Check in on Twitter daily and on WANA Tribe at least once/week: On target.

5.) Comment on 5-6 blogs per day, Monday-Thursday: On target.

6.) Super-secret project: Write two articles/posts each week for that project. No progress on this front. I did write an article to submit to another publication—that sort-of counts, right? 😉

A Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80), founded by author Kait Nolan, is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. It’s also a blog hop!

What do you do when you’re struggling with finishing a story? Any advice for fellow writers on nailing the tone of a story? Do you worry about tone in a first draft, or is that more of a second draft concern for you? Do you write your first drafts without stopping?

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Fantasy & paranormal romance author. Witch. Tarot reader. Possibly a woodland sprite. Debut release TANGLED ROOTS now available. Magic awaits at

15 thoughts on “Setting the Tone for a Novel or Story

  1. Congrats on all your ROW80 progress! 972 words is better than no words. =*) Your post is thought-provoking because I actually don’t think much (read: at all) about tone when I’m writing. Or if I do, then I don’t think of it in those terms. What I’ve been focusing on more is writing in a style that feels authentic to me while serving what I consider to be the purpose or main thrust of the story I’m telling. But your point is well-taken. Will be thinking about this moving forward, at the very least to observe whether I use a different tone depending on the genre in which I’m writing.

    1. Thanks, Sione. My guess is that many of us know what the tone of our story is, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. It just sort of happens. I suspect that because I’ve struggled with the tone of this story, I’m thinking about tone more now than in the past. So it’s front and center in my thoughts at the moment.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I had the beginnings of a story I like sitting on shelf for a year or so. Then I wrote a different story, and realized the shelf-story would be perfect if written into the same (Steampunk) Universe. On the shelf, it was rather serious. Off the shelf, I made it fun and lighthearted, like the other, and it’s much better for it!

    If, after finishing your book, the reader wonders “Is this a romping romantic adventure, or is it a serious story that plumbs emotional depths?” then I’d say you have succeeded wildly.

    1. I’m glad you were able to find a solution for your story! That happened to me with a story I was working on a year or two ago. It was also a “shelf-story,” then I realized that, while it wasn’t much of a novel, it would make a great novelette-length work. I almost screamed “Eureka!” when I realized I wouldn’t have to leave those characters with their story unfinished. Now, that story is on my list to work on later this year.

      Sometimes giving yourself some space from a manuscript allows you to see the big-picture of a manuscript–and identifying tone is definitely one of those big-picture elements.

      Thanks, AmyBeth! 🙂

  3. Like you, I’ve been doing my best to try to use the early stages to make less work for myself later. Work smarter, not harder. And I’ve had 50% success rate (as in ever other project thus far). Of course this was going from a rate of 100% needs lots of fixes. So, even though it is far from perfect, there is improvement. And, to be honest, I don’t think it will be 100% ever. Though 75% wouldn’t be bad. 😉

    Awesome job on your goals. Hope it keeps going well for this week.

    1. “Work smarter, not harder.” Those are words to live by.

      I think you’re right; expecting 100-percent perfection out of a first draft is too much. What I’m trying to avoid isn’t the revising/editing stage. I don’t mind that at all. I just want to avoid the major rewrites. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you spent months–or even years–toiling away at a manuscript only to realize you have to start from scratch.

      Thanks, Gloria. 🙂

  4. Fabulous tips here! I’ve really been thinking about tone because I’m writing several short stories, and I want them to vary in their tone, from serious and descriptive to frank and snarky. I like your suggestions here.

    Congratulations on your progress. You added some wonderful words to your WIP, and you’re On Target with so many of your other goals. Best wishes with the remainder of your week!

  5. Up to now I haven’t worried about the tone of a story. I’ve just written and let the words come out on the computer screen however they’ve wanted to. I know that I need to be more focused than that, though, so you’ve helped me look more intently at those issues. Thanks!

    1. You’re welcome. I think it’s common for many writers to wait until a second draft to think about tone, or they set a tone in their first draft without being aware of it. Sometimes it just happens naturally. But if we’re consciously aware of tone as we write, or if we know the tone we want going into a story, that makes the editing process a bit easier.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I’m one of those who feels the tone, maybe because my characters seem to kind of live out their own lives for me, and they don’t let me get too far into tones that don’t fit (does that make sense, or is it just me?)

    I always slow down at the end of my WIPs. I take hot showers and play pattern games. I do some things and tend my house, and wait until things fall together…

    I read 2k to 10K last year, then Rock Your Plot. Between them, I thought that I could fly through the ending – but no. I had a better idea where I wanted to end than ever before, and the whole novel flowed more smoothly (with the surprises tending to fit the novel better).

    I still needed to slow down – and I’m glad I did. Some really cool details that tied threads together in ways I hadn’t imagined.

    I wrote over 122K in November.

    That WIP is several down my list of ones to revise, but it’s the best one I’ve written, and I’ll have a lot less work to do on that one than any that go before.

    But I’ll still spend more time on the end….it’s just the way I am.

    I hope you find the tone, and that fitting ending!

    1. I like your idea of slowing down towards the end. I have a tendency to want to fly through, and sometimes I get going too fast and trip over my own feet, so to speak. Now that I’ve allowed myself to slow down, the story is progressing. It’s funny how that works sometimes, isn’t it?

      I just finished “2K to 10K” a few days ago. I’m glad I read it. I love Rachel Aaron’s view of editing. Thinking about the reader experience while I edit is going to make a huge difference for me in terms of my mindset.

      Have a wonderful day! 🙂

  7. Congrats on your goals, Denise! Looks like you’re doing great. And I second your recommendation of 2K to 10K — even though I have yet to even reach the 2K mark regularly. 🙂

    Interesting about tone. I rarely worry about that — for me, the story usually provides the tone. The ones where I’m not sure are the ones I never finish!

    1. Me too. I’m still trying to strike a balance between pushing myself to write more and get my word counts up and not pushing so hard that I burn myself out. One of my objectives for the year is to figure out where the word-count sweet spot is for me.

      In some of my stories, tone emerges naturally. But other times, I have to take a few steps back, like a painter examining a work on a large expanse of canvas. Now that I’ve thought it over, it’s back to the page for me. 🙂

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