How to Choose the Right Words for Your Story’s Tone

Words are the link between the ethereal realm of our imaginations and the concrete reality of our books. So it’s no surprise that our choice of words is the single most important factor in our presentation of our stories. It’s also one of the toughest, since there are millions of words for us to choose from. Knowing how to choose the right words is predicated upon:

1. Knowing the word to start with.

2. Being able to remember it.

3. Understanding what kind of word is called for by your novel’s particular tone.

Your choice of words not only builds your particular authorial voice, it also influences the tone of each story and each character within that story. The more flexible you are in your word choices and the more aware you are of how those choices will subtly, perhaps even unconsciously, guide readers to the desired emotional and intellectual reaction, the more skilled you will be in weaving stories of depth and breadth.

You can find an example of this in the fantasy Dragon Wing by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. This book features two primary types of narrating characters, humans and dwarves, and the authors did a great job of giving both races unique voices through their choice of words. The dwarves, as a repressed and somewhat humorous society, were given according vocabularies. For example, their names for items were often simplistic and obvious terms, such as “whistle-toot” and “squawky-talk,” which, of course, provided a dramatic contrast to the more technological humans and elves.

Humorous stories almost always encourage unique and unusual word choices. But with a little more restraint, this rule of thumb holds just as fast for every other genre. When working on your story, look past the first word choice to appear on your screen and try to find ones that are not only original, but which will also reveal interesting and important facets of your story in general and each character in particular.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What helps you choose the right words for your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. At the same time, it can be dangerous to be too mindful of your word choice. A lot of writers are much more likely to completely remove any unique voice that they have by carefully picking and choosing.

  2. How are you able to cram so much info into one blog? This newbie writer gets very excited each and every time I open a post. Many thanks

  3. @Sarah: An awareness of word choice has to incorporate a specific vision for the tone of a story. So long as an author knows what he’s aiming for, he’s not going to be in much danger of accidentally damaging his voice. Voice is fluid and can be created and recreated, as the author grows and the story demands.

    @Donna: Glad you’re enjoying them! Thanks for stopping by.

  4. I think I’ve made my character’s voices unique, if somewhat stereotyped.

  5. Stereotypes aren’t bad as long you recognize them and are using them *as* stereotypes for good reason.

  6. A question about word choice. You suggest looking past the first word that appears on your screen… Do you want us to take this literally? My approach is to get the story down in the first draft. It is the second draft where I will look for improving the tone and mood through the alteration of word choice.

  7. Depends on what works best for you. Most people will do best if they look deeper in revisions. Some, like me, are able to find more organic choices if they ponder it when in the midst of the first draft.

  8. Good points! Our job shouldn’t be to simply tell the story, but to make it come to life. These and other tools or tricks can only help us flesh that perfect story out of the ethereal, as you rightly put it.
    Great job with the vlog, by the way. Clearly I haven’t been by enough, but hope to rectify that in the coming year. Why I didn’t just subscribe to everyone’s posts via e-mail, I’ll never know. We live, we learn. Right? I just did a vlog last week, but I’m never that comfortable doing them.
    Happy New Year to you and yours.


  9. Email subscription is my favorite way to subscribe to blogs as well. Drives me crazy when it’s not an option!

    It’s funny how we can so easily overlook the chief tool of our trade – words – when it comes to their most important quality. Words aren’t just how we communicate our stories, they are, as you say, the way we bring them to life.

  10. I, for one, am incredibly fascinated by words for just the very reason you’re communicating here. In my early days, I used to just say what needed to be said, then afterward figured out who should be saying it. I don’t really recommend that route. Since then — though I still keep theme and purpose in mind — I’m much more likely to let the characters drive the dialogue, figuring out who might respond first and how. I don’t know how unique my characters are, per se; I’ve spent so much time with them, they’re a little too familiar. But I like them.

  11. I’ve tried to make each POV character have a unique voice, but since all the characters come from me anyway, they usually end up sounding the same. Working to correct that, but it’s a challenge, and certainly harder than one would think.

  12. @Daniel: An author liking his characters is the first, and most important, factor in making those characters great. If we love them, we can bet at least some readers will too.

    @Lorna: I find that most of my novels have unique voices, more so than the characters within them. This has its good and its bad points.

  13. Thanks for the reminder. My recent writing has mostly been academic and business. I’ve certainly examined tone as a literature student, but because I’m in the depths of the initial draft, I’d forgotten all about it. I can see some transformations happening – thanks again.

  14. Those transformations are the most exciting part of the writing process. Have fun!

  15. I am glad I discovered your blog. I believe you will help me tremendously to find my way as a writer. Thank you very much for your generosity.

  16. So glad to hear the blog is helpful! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  17. I have thought about this but I think I have been a bit lazy I think. I might have you look at my WIP if you are still over at CW. I’ll shoot you a line if you have time.

  18. I haven’t done much on the CW forums of late, but I’ll certainly take a look if I have time.

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