How to Set the Tone for your Novel
Whether you’re aware of it or not, the tone for your story is settled before you’ve even put finger to keyboard. Thereafter it sets the precedent for how your writing proceeds and what the completed first draft will look like.
But don't panic! You've probably done this instinctively - without giving it much (or any) thought. Yet having a clear understanding of the most effective tone for your book before you begin can actually make it easier (or at least slightly less excruciating) to write, so it’s worth taking time to think it through before you dive in. Additionally and somewhat crucially, for your readers, the tone of the book is everything.
But what exactly is tone?
Masterclass describes tone in fiction like this: “In literary terms, tone typically refers to the mood implied by an author’s word choice and the way that the text can make a reader feel.” (https://www.masterclass.com/articles/examples-of-tone-words-in-writing)
Right away the keywords that jump out here are mood and feel. I don’t think I’m the only one speaking from experience when I say the reason I read – the reason I’ve always read – is to be moved, to feel something, whatever that might be. The book that absorbs us to the point of forgetting where we are - it’s not just the storyline carrying us away, it’s the book’s tone.
The same can be applied to songs – soulful, sad, happy, playful; or movies – dark, funny, scary, heart-wrenching. They all come down to mood and how they make us feel.
So if tone is about setting the ambience, where do we start with that in our books?
Well, you might say point of view, or the narrator. You might say it has something to do with the type of language used. You’ll definitely say it depends on the intended readership and the genre. And I’ll say, yes, yes, and yes. The reason tone in fiction is often so difficult to explain is because it’s not one thing - it’s all of the above woven together to create a particular effect for the reader.
The guinea pigs
Let’s pin down what tone really is using books that are clearly distinctive from one another - Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Even if you’ve never read the books, you probably know the movies, so you’ll have an understanding of the general differences between them. You’ll know that The Hunger Games has a cast of young characters and contains all the violence and threat of an action thriller but without any overly graphic gory bits or naughty words, making it perfect for a younger audience. And you’ll know that Trainspotting… is definitely not for a younger audience.
Point of view/narrator
Hunger Games : 1st person POV, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen as narrator; what happens to her as it happens, one event leading to another in a linear fashion
Trainspotting : 1st person POV, often stream of consciousness, multiple narrators, strong Scots dialect and Standard English, plus 3rd person omniscient POV; the characters and their stories in the book interweave then go off in different directions, often crossing again at later points
Language use and word choice
Hunger Games : simple, self-explanatory; a young girl telling her story; an innocence to it, thoughts, wishes, young love, relationships, strong sense of right and wrong, perhaps idealistic; no swearing or adult (sexual) themes
Trainspotting : difficult to read if you’re not familiar with the Scots dialect, takes some getting used to; the language is coarse, the characters’ experiences raw and uncut; sexually explicit; explicit drug use references; crude language and behaviour
Genre and audience
Hunger Games : dystopian action thriller, set in the near future, young adult
Trainspotting : gritty contemporary realism, set in the ‘80s and including cultural and political references, adult
Both books deal with themes of violence, death and survival, yet their language and word choices are significantly different owing to their genre and target audience. This combined with the time setting – Hunger Games in the near future; Trainspotting in the near (and very real) past – lends one book an air of fantasy, while the other is a sharply brutal social commentary delivered through fiction.
It’s clear then that the tones of the two books are very different in order to strike the right mood and create the most effective way to deliver their particular stories to their particular audiences. The Hunger Games would never have got off the ground if it was littered with cuss words or told from another viewpoint other than the female main character, and Trainspotting wouldn’t have received the same acclaim (and criticism) if it had been simply narrated in third person with flowery language. In other words, neither book would have worked as well if they had opted for a different tone.
So now we know the importance of tone - how the heck do we tackle it?
By starting with the basics. What is the book's genre and who is its audience? This is the easy bit and you’ll already know what kind of book you want to write and what age group it will suit. That’s your starting point, out of which all other decisions about your book will evolve.
After that, who is the best person to tell this story? For example, if it’s a serial killer thriller for an adult audience, do you want readers to get inside the killer’s head, or focus on the victims and/or the victims’ families? Or both, splitting the narrative between two sides of the crime (as I did in Never Seen)?
To get inside the killer’s head is to give the antagonist a voice – and this can heighten the horror aspect of the crime or even, if done well, give your readers all kinds of conflicting empathies and ideas as to how the book should or will resolve. In Never Seen I wanted to show both the killer's chilling state of mind and "reasoning" (through 1st person POV), as well as the escalating anguish of those trying and failing to stop him (3rd person close, multiple POVs) - so that as the book rushes towards its conclusion, the reader witnesses the narrowing of the divide between these characters until it becomes clear their pasts overlap in multiple ways with tragic consequences.
So, again we come back to how you want your reader to feel, and this will dictate the viewpoint (close or observational; one character or multiple) and overarching tone of the book.
From there, the viewpoint will also then influence the book’s language and word choice. Think of Katniss, her language clean and uncomplicated, a simple running commentary of events, her idealistic views of right and wrong - and then the multiple narrators of Trainspotting, an eclectic mix of muddled thoughts and experiences, often in stream of consciousness, using the language and dialect of a particular culture at a particular time and reflecting the period's uncertainty, frustration and hopelessness.
Who your main character is as a person will contribute towards the tone of the book because they're the one telling the story and therefore stamping everything they are – a collection of unique experiences, knowledge and perspectives – on all that they see, touch, think, say and don't say.
A third-person POV narrative is no different. For example, if it’s close third-person, as in focalised on telling the story from a particular character’s perspective (of which the POV may switch between characters in different scenes or chapters), then the language and word choice may still pertain to that particular character (or characters), and therefore reflect to a large or small degree their manner of speaking. Similarly, an omniscient third-person POV, where the narrator is privy to all the characters’ thoughts, opinions, histories and observations, may on balance retain a similar tone but be able to adjust slightly according to who it’s focusing on at the time. For example:
A third-person objective POV, where the narrator has no access to any of the characters’ internal thoughts or feelings, and appears to be retelling the events purely from an observational point of view, does not mean it’s toneless. Again here, you’ll be thinking about your genre, your audience, and the effect you want your story to have on readers. Perhaps you want the narrator invisible so your story can better reveal itself through the characters’ actions and dialogue. Or… perhaps somewhere along the way, you want to plant doubts in your readers’ minds as to the reliability of the seemingly objective narrator. This point of view is rare, as it’s difficult to handle while still impressing on the reader all the emotions you want them to feel. But it’s worth mentioning in case that’s the tone that best fits the mood of your story.
Tone, then, is the resulting effect of the important narrative choices combined – genre, audience, point of view, language and word choice - to create a particular mood.
For the reader, it can be a way into your story if it’s a tone they recognise and have expected; and it’s what keeps them in your story if it remains consistent to the end. They may not be able to name it as tone, but they will certainly feel something is off about a book if the tone doesn’t match their expectations or suddenly changes without good reason part way through.
As a writer, have you ever noticed how much easier the words flow in a piece of dialogue when you have a clear understanding of what a character will say and how they’ll react? Or that feeling of utter bliss when the words trip off the keyboard without too much effort because you’ve landed upon a thoroughly intriguing and perfect attitude/voice for the scene? All of this relates to striking the right tone.
It may feel like an added burden, but taking the time to clarify your book’s tone at the outset is like creating a map for your novel that will guide you through the first draft, steering the ship even when the waters get cool and choppy.
Collins, S. (2009 ed.), The Hunger Games, Scholastic Children’s Books, London
Welsh, I. (2013 ed.), Trainspotting, Vintage, Random House, London