Have You Set the Right Tone for Your Story?

Tone is one of those things, along with author “voice,” that can be difficult for us get our heads around since to some extent it just happens. But tone, even more than voice, is something we can—and should—deliberately consider and plan for the good of our stories. Think of tone as sort of like a flavor. If readers take a spoonful of your story, are they going to get a mouthful of sweet, salty, tart—or an unpalatable glop that includes a little bit of everything?

The first consideration when it comes to tone is consistency. We want to set up and frame the story in a way that will guide reader expectations and then completely fulfill them. Unless we’re pulling a “Happiest Little Elf” à la Lemony Snicket, it’s not likely to be a good idea for us to start out with a whimsical tone, only to turn the story into something dark and graphic. For example, when we begin a Terry Pratchett novel or a Tim Burton movie, we know exactly what we’re going to get because the tone is set right from the beginning.

Sweeney Todd (2007), DreamWorks Pictures.

To a large extent, your tone will probably choose itself. But because it will influence the entirety of your story, it’s something worth thinking about and playing around with.

Are you going for light and happy? Dark and grungy? Straightforward and businesslike? Poetic and ethereal?

These choices will dramatically influence readers’ perception of your story. Your plot and characters can remain the same, but if you change the tone, the whole story changes. So when you’re beginning a new story, take a few minutes to play around with the tone. Write your opening line in a variety of different tones. Play around with narrator voices and explore them from different emotional angles. When you’re done, evaluate which one you enjoyed writing the most and which best evokes the type of story you’re wanting to create.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How would you describe the tone in your most recent 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. It’s a little dark and sartorial – at least that’s what aiming for 🙂

  2. Hmmm, tone…pragmatic? It not whimsical, or dark — sometimes, though, when I have a whimsical or dark scene. But it’s just kind of middle-of-the-road, says-what-it-needs-to-say, conveys-the-mood-it-needs-to-convey (hopefully). As far as what I want my reader to walk away with, I would say a little bit of doubt about current suppositions, questions about the line between my fantasy and their reality, and hope/motivation for challenging the current culture.

    We’ll see how I pull that off, though.

  3. Thanks for the video. The tone in my new mystery, Shimmer, is on the dark side, but with a ray of hope.

  4. Thanks for the video. The tone in my new mystery, Shimmer, is on the dark side, but with a ray of hope.

  5. @mshatch: Sounds fun – esp. the sartorial part.

    @Daniel: Radical tones that stray off the beaten path are often more memorable, but they’re also much more difficult to pull off. You’re not likely to go wrong with a “middle-of-the-road” tone.

    @Brian: Stories like that are often some of my favorites.

  6. this was good timing for me. I’ll be starting a new novel soon and I hadn’t thought about setting the tone. I wonder now what readers will think the tone is of the one I just completed. Important to establish it early!
    thanks KM!

  7. That’s where beta readers come into play. Nothing like a little objective feedback!

  8. I never think about tones for my story.. they just kinda work themselves into it without any forethought.
    Possibly because I use music with a mood for the inspiration?

  9. Thanks for the transcript. My little netbook which I have on hols is a little lazy with youtube and other vids.
    Great post on voice. Mine is a little poetic and ethereal in my current novella.

  10. @Gideon: Tone will happen, one way or another, whether we think about it or not. And, usually, the tone that comes out is the right one for the story. But consciously claiming tone can only strengthen what we’re trying to accomplish.

    @Denise: As a reader, poetic and ethereal is almost always a favorite.

  11. Mine is dark and tragic should be since it’s horror-based.

  12. But, of course!

  13. Would you say that tone is like the undercurrent of a book. I pick up on unconsciously and they have the ability to affect my mood all day. A book with a happy undercurrent and I’m bubbly all day, dark undercurrent and I’m miserable to be around. I can read a 200 page book easily in under a day, but have me read 1984 and I get so depressed it takes me weeks to finish. Is that the idea of tone. Specific word choice to emotionally influence the audience?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To some extent, yes. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that unconscious. Most readers will consciously understand a book’s tone right from the beginning.

  14. Mine starts humorous and surreal, and turns dark(er) and surreal. Very high tension for the climax. Uh-oh!

  15. Tone seems to be a problem area for me. I’m picking up a series of manuscripts following a world and characters I started about twenty years ago. I’m trying to write the series from start to finish, but it takes so long and there were/are times my momentum dropped/drops and my “writer’s block” moments span from months to 5 years or more.

    When I get back to the series I find I can’t return to the tone I used to write before the extended writers block. It just doesn’t work. The newer tone is darker, more serious. The old tone was more whimsical, child like, and peppered with slapstick type humor. My beta readers/ family prefers the older tone. (and also laments some of the cut scenes and books I dropped from the series.)

    A mistake I might have made was to switch from first person POV (the child’s perspective) to 3rd person. I’m finding I just can’t write in the 3rd person outside using it as a scene transition or an alternate POV, where I purposefully want to distance myself from the character’s POV. I feel too distant to sustain it through the whole book, and rather play with the child’s internal thoughts. It doesn’t read the same, even with a 3rd person close.
    The soldier’s (father figure) POV I feel best with 3rd person close or 3rd person omni. I tried first person once with him and didn’t like it.

    Perhaps I should go back to narrating 1st person from the child’s POV and switch between that 1st and 3rd for the other character?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      POV is a major consideration in crafting tone. Ultimately, you just have to choose what’s best for the story even if it means sacrificing in some areas.


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