When I started thinking about tone the first thing that popped into my head was Stephen King, because he is a master at creating that creepy, unsettling feeling horror writers spend years and years trying to duplicate. I wondered, what is it about his writing that conveys this so incredibly well? I looked at one paragraph in particular from his novel “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”:
“As she reached the driver's door of the cab, which hung open with vines twisting in and out of its socket of a window, lightening flashed again, painting the whole world purple. In its glare Trisha saw something with slumped shoulders standing on the far side of the road, something with black eyes and great cocked ears like horns. Perhaps they were horns. It wasn't human; nor did she think it was animal. It was a god. It was her god, the wasp-god, standing there in the rain.”
What do you notice about this paragraph that contributes to the tone of it? Don’t cheat and read on. Analyze it for a second. This is what we, as writers, should be doing when we read; analyzing the authors writing. Especially those authors you want to imitate. This is why reading is so important! It will make you a better writer. Anyways...
This is what I noticed in the paragraph above:
Notice the word choice. “which hung open with vines twisting in and out of its socket of a window”, “something with slumped shoulders”, “great cocked ears like horns.” The use of the word “socket” in particular gives off a very eerie feeling because you immediately think of the empty eye-sockets of a corpse, which I’m certain was Stephen King’s intention. I put “something” in bold because I believe he used that word purposefully as well as all the others. Fear of the unknown is always much scarier than what is really there. So, he goes to the unknown first and then says what it is she sees. All of the words are used with intention and that is important in conveying a certain mood or tone across to readers.
To get my point across even further take a look at some of the sentences with different word usage. “which swayed open with vines twirling in and out of its hole of a window”, “a figure with droopy shoulders”, “great cocked ears like a fluffy, cuddly, bunny.” You get the idea. They read a little differently now, huh. These sentences don’t give me that creepy feeling that they did before.
Another aspect that I noticed helped set the tone was the way he structured the paragraph. He has a subtle yet effective way of adding tension leading up to intense moments. Read through the paragraph again and notice the length of the sentences, the use of commas. The sentences become shorter, the commas more frequent, the closer it gets to the “god” appearing. The pace quickens. It creates a feeling of unease, anxiousness, panic, which contributes to the tone he is setting.
Something else worth mentioning that is a little off topic is the simplicity of his words and the profound impact that this paragraph still has on the readers. It’s quite terrifying. It is a relief to read stories like this because it reminds me that I don’t have to use big, sophisticated words or construct my sentences in a complicated and profound manner (like those found in Emily Bronte novels) in order to get the intended tone across. To review, the important things to remember in getting the right tone across to your readers lies in your word choice and in the way you structure your sentences; the pace. I repeat, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Other things to keep in mind:
1. You can use description through your characters eyes to convey the tone. If you’re point of view character is angry or sad then he’s going to notice things like the decrepit, old couch or the rotting food in the fridge. If your character is nervous or paranoid then they may notice staring strangers or screaming children, etc...
2. Remember to keep the tone consistent throughout your story or from character to character if there are multiple view points.
3. When you are finished writing your story go back through it, keeping in mind the tone you wanted to set. Rewrite any parts that don’t have that tone.
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