Have You Chosen the Wrong Tone for Your Story?

The One Rule for Choosing Your Story’s Tone

Choosing your story’s tone can make or break your book. It will affect every single page you write.

Tone guides readers in figuring how they’re supposed to view a story. Funny? Serious? Edgy? Sarcastic? Wielded with understanding, tone will help you create a more cohesive story and will pull readers that much deeper into the emotional web you’re weaving.

But if you’ve chosen the wrong tone for your story, it can fragment your narrative and distance and confuse readers.

Sound scary? It should! Tone alone can either destroy your story or raise it even higher. Let’s look at how to do the latter and never the former.

Tone vs. Voice in a Story

Before we dig deeper into the nitty-gritty of how to choose the right tone for any given passage in your book, let’s first differentiate between tone and voice.

Are they the same? They both affect how your book sounds. Tone is an integral component in voice. And voice always influences tone. But, in spite of all that, no, they are not the same thing.

“Voice” describes your authorial presence on the page. This is both something that just flows naturally out of you and a skill you will be evolving throughout your life.

Your voice is the unique way you parse together words and guide sentences on the page.“Tone” will always be a part of that. But tone is also much more specific to each book. You might write a tragedy today and a comedy tomorrow, and although your authorial voice will remain much the same in both, the tone will be different in each one.

Tone is even more specific to each passage within that book. For instance, your tragedy might contain moments of comedy, in which the tone will necessarily differ from the tragic bits.

The #1 Rule for  Choosing the Your Story’s Tone

Now that we’ve clarified the difference between tone and voice, how do we know what tone is right for what scene? This will always be an authorial decision. But, generally speaking, here’s a handy rule to follow: The higher the emotional pitch in any scene, the “flatter” the prose should be.

Intense Scene? Tone It Down

In Creative Nonfiction, Philip Gerard reminds us,

The tension between the high-octane material and the understated telling will usually cause the strength of the material to work on the reader…. The more complex the idea or technology you are trying to explain, the simpler, more straightforward the writing ought to be.

High-pitched emotion plus high-pitched prose equals melodrama. Whenever you’re writing a hugely dramatic or complicated scene, resist pouring on the lush prose. Instead, use shorter sentences and smaller, punchier words. Doing so will allow you to retain the emotional integrity of the piece without dunking it in melodrama.

Straightforward Scene? Turn Up the Tone

Gerard adds:

Conversely, sometimes the simplest, most obvious phenomena give you an opportunity for an exquisitely intricate, lyrical metaphor. Beauty always arouses emotion.

The very fact that simplicity is familiar and understandable gives you more room to expound. Write “sunset” and readers instantly get what you’re talking about. They’re already on the same page as you, which gives you room to deepen your prose and help readers see that plain ol’ familiar sunset in a new and interesting way.

Same goes for most scenes of low-key emotion. Your “heavy” tone might detract from a funeral scene, but it might be just the ticket for that quiet scene in which your heroine is walking her dog on a beautiful morning.

Remember: the flatter the tone, the safer your prose. As we discussed a few weeks ago, never launch into complexity without scrutinizing what it brings to your story. Still, you’re the sheriff in this town, so you ultimately get to make the rules. If you feel any particular passage in your story would benefit from a more dramatic or lyrical tone, go for it!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you go about choosing your story’s tone? 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. Serious. With moments of humour. I know you said 1 word, but I couldn’t 🙁

    • K.M. Weiland says

      To be fair, “moments of humor” gives a totally different impression than “humorous.” So I’ll let it pass just this once. 😉

  2. Davonne Burns says

    The primary tone of my novel is dark. Maybe a little too dark at times. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Insert funny sidekick. Works every time. Then, if he lightens up the tone too much, you can always kill him off and make it darker than ever. :p

  3. Summery.

  4. Buoyant

  5. First thought was ‘punchy’ but the old standby ‘hardboiled’ covers the bases better.

  6. Blossoming.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I’m trying to figure out what a “blossoming” tone sounds like. Joyful? Emergent? Whatever the case, it sounds good. 🙂

  7. Edgy. At least that’s what I’m trying to achieve in my latest WIP. By the way, I love the new look of your blog.

  8. Somewhat terse, mostly because what the MC is going through causes her to be that way.

  9. Gosh, I don’t know!

    My view of the book is so different than others. It’s not dark, and it’s not too intense, but it’s a little mixture of both.

    Great. Now I have to go ask someone …

    • K.M. Weiland says

      In all fairness, sometimes it can be downright impossible to sum up *anything* about a novel in one word. Complexity – as long as it’s focused complexity – is always a good thing.

  10. Cold.

  11. Great post! Is it just me or is setting the tone for a short fiction a little more difficult than for a novel? What do you think, K.M? I mean, we’re trying to fit in so many details in a short piece that sometimes writers forget to leave somethings to the readers’ imagination. Is it something you get better at as you go writing?

    • K.M. Weiland says

      In my own experience, I would say *setting* tone is about the same for both novels and shorts. If anything, I find tone a little easier in shorts, since you don’t have to maintain it over such a long jaunt as in a novel.

  12. Versatile.

    I write theme driven stories so each protagonist gets POV scenes and they’ve got waaaay different outlooks on life. But I think Lilting would also be a good word. I have a predominance of rising and falling tones that follow the characters moods in the scene.

  13. Shayne – ambitious
    Charlie – curious

  14. Broken

  15. Kathryn Houge says


  16. my character is the type of person who holds her negative feelings in for the sake of other people. if she’s feeling like crap you’ll probably notice, but she won’t tell you because she doesn’t want you to worry. she does this in the first book of my series. her father just died so now she has to go live with her mother, whom she hasn’t seen since she was six years old, and her mother’s new family. inside she’s having a hard time dealing with the fact that her mom up and left her and her father, years later remarried a guy with two kids of his own, and then waltz back up in her life like it’s all okay. my character feels betrayed and like her mom didn’t see her as worth fighting for, but throughout the story she puts on a facade, acting as if she’s not mad or upset at her mom for the sake of not hurting the woman. i want to choose sad as a tone but then again i don’t. i’m soo confused D:

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To a large extent, tone always depends on the character’s voice. If your protagonist’s voice is sarcastic or upbeat or funny, then there’s no reason to pursue a sad tone, even if the overall story is a sad one.


  1. […] A.X. Ahmad shares how to write a page turner in 5 easy steps; and K.M. Weiland defines tone versus voice, and how to choose the right tone for your book. […]

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