Is Your Story’s Tone Lying to Readers?

We might define your story’s tone as its attitude. More than that, it’s a guide for readers to help them determine their attitude while reading your story. As such, you have to set your story’s tone right from the beginning. Funny, cheeky, sad, dark, cynical, hopeful? What’s your story’s tone?

Even more importantly, does your story maintain its tone throughout the book? Think about your first chapter. Sum up its overall tone in one word. Now think about your closing chapter and sum up its own tone in one word. Are they the same?

Now, I’m not talking about your characters’ emotions in either scene. Your characters may start out happy and end up sad, or vice versa. Very seldom will characters finish their journey in the same frame of mind in which they began. They evolve over the course of the story. (Else, why was their journey worth recording?) But the tone shouldn’t evolve.

Why not? Because tone is a unifying force in your story. Scattered tones create a scattered story. Baz Luhrman’s lush epic Australia is, frankly, a hot mess, if only because it can’t seem to decide what tone it wants to set. It starts out quirky and comedic, with asides from the child narrator and the heroine doing an outrageously entertaining imitation of a British snob. But, every twenty minutes, the story seems to change its mind, and, in the end, we have no idea what it was really about. Quirky comedy? Shoot ‘em up western? Poor-boy-rich-girl romance? War drama? We have no idea—because we have no unified tone to guide us.

When your readers open your book, they are going to make certain assumptions about the entire story, based solely on the tone you set in the first chapter. If you’re writing a tragedy, your characters may start out happy as larks in the first chapter, but the tone must foreshadow the darkness to come. If you’re writing a comedy, your characters may start out in a grimy prison, but the tone will guide readers to keep their tongues firmly in their cheeks.

Identify your story’s tone before you even start writing, and you’ll create a strong and unified story with attitude to spare.

Tell me your opinion: What is your story’s tone in your beginning chapter? How about the closing one?

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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. Great post. Great advice. I, too, have read books where the tone was all over the place. I never understood why. The tone sets your attitude toward the subject matter (as you said), so why would your attitude change throughout the course of the story? I imagine some authors do it for effect, but I think it’s a bad idea.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most authors do this without even realizing it’s happening – largely, because their own attitudes are changing over the many months it takes to write a story. This is why it’s so important to consciously set the tone from the outset, so you can measure your daily writing against *it* instead of your own meandering emotions.

  2. Could you be a bit more specific, please? You suggest “Funny, cheeky, sad, dark, cynical, hopeful”. What others would you see? I’m struggling to decide what my tone is, as against my MC’s emotions. Let me start:
    – humorous
    – sinister
    – optimistic
    – poetic
    – dry
    – dramatic
    – pedantic?
    – …
    I run out of ideas.

    • Viktor, just ask yourself how you feel about what your character is going through. Would you like your character if he or she was a real person? You answer will determine your tone (or attitude) in your writing of that character or plot.

    • There are, of course, many mini tones in a book, depending on the prevailing mood of each individual scene. We find comedy even in tragedies, and vice versa. When trying to identify your story’s overall tone, ask yourself what you’re trying to say with the book. Tone and theme are often mirrors of one another. Are you trying to convey hope? Your tone might be one of buoyancy, even if the story is dark. Are you trying to convey cynicism? The tone might be edgy, even if the story is a comedy.

  3. Very useful to think about tone, but I see an issue here: our judgement about our work might be sometimes as misguided as our perception of ourselves? Could it be similar like sometimes when we feel we’ve been particularly witty and amusing while in company, others thought we were being snarky and irritating?
    Perhaps I’m overthinking it all..

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, definitely! But don’t overthink this too much in the first draft. Figure out what tone you want to convey, then write it however it feels right. If betas aren’t getting it, that’s the time to consider revising.

  4. Steve Mathisen says

    Excellent food for thought, as usual. I would not be going out on a limb to say that many, if not all, beginning writers fail to comprehend terms like tone and voice. I still struggle to understand those terms and could use some guidance discerning the difference between the two and just how to create the proper ones for my writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Voice in particular is a toughie to explain. Bottom line: voice is *how* you write. It’s the sound you, as an individual, create on the page. It’s something that’s inherent to your writing from day one, but you refine it as you evolve yourself as a writer.

      Tone is more specific to each story – and even each scene. Tone is the *mood* you’re conveying in a story.

  5. This is exactly the advice I needed to hear now as I embark on writing from scenes cards. And a BIG thank you – just just completely clarified tone vs. mood, which I’ve been struggling to recall!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s funny how we can have a complete and solid story on the scene cards – and then it can end up losing all focus once we start flowing into the wild creativity of the first draft. Sounds like you’ve got it under control though!

  6. This is something I hope I’m doing in my own work. I will have to check with betas after my story is ready. Is it okay though it you start off writing something dark, by the end you switch to a hopeful note?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The note of hope needs to be there throughout, if only lurking in the background. It needs to be foreshadowed, even if it’s just subtly.

  7. Can’t changing points of view justify a slight tonal shift? The book I’m working has three of them and I’m afraid if I have their perspectives too far off from one another I’ll destroy the tone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s tones–and then there’s subtones. The book as a whole has to come together in a unifying tone–if only in the sense that it’s a combination of the “subtones” found in the various POVs.

  8. I adore animated works, but I want to chuck something hard when writers rapidly change the tone within a single scene, back and forth with zero grace. This could apply to live-action as well, but to me it’s more common, or at least more annoying in animation.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Humor in a serious work can be tricky. You want to keep the drama from turning into melodrama, but you also don’t wan to one-eighty the tone either. Same for serious moments in a lighthearted story.

  9. Katie–
    I think it’s hard to make sense of tone without including some discussion of point of view. In stories told in the first person, tone and voice are essentially the same thing. The way of thinking, the manner in which the central character sees the world will be reflected in how he expresses himself. The same is true for multiple point-of-view narration, but here, the central take on experience–the author’s–is now expressed in various tones, depending on which character’s eyes and ears are used to convey what’s happening. Is the writer by nature farcical? Cynical? Romantic? Committed to a clinical examination of events? Whatever his nature, it will become evident in the tone of his characters.
    This is a complicated issue, isn’t it?

    • Tone is a complicated issue. POV is twice as complicated. Voice? Fuh-ged-about it! They’re all intertwined, and – as you say – practically inseparable. In large measure, getting the balance right is ultimately about the feel of thing more than anything else.

  10. Eric Troyer says

    A good place to study story tone is with a couple of movie franchises. The James Bond movies have been all over the place over the years. Some are goofy, others are straight action, the most recent is rather dark and serious. The Batman franchise, including the original television show, is another. I just read an interesting post about how the tone of Batman has changed over the years. Here’s a webpage address to the article:

  11. I don’t really think about tone a lot when I’m writing the first draft of stories. I honestly don’t really think about it in the 2nd draft, either, but I think on the periphery, I’m aware of it, especially if things aren’t jibing from scene-to-scene.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most of the time, tone manifests itself without our worrying about it. But it’s valuable to ponder it up front, if only as a preventive measure against things going wrong without our even realizing it.

  12. An interesting post. Now I realise how important it is to keep to your tone…

    This question is a bit off topic, but I’m having a bit of trouble with voice. I find that sometimes I emulate what I’m reading at the moment, so it seems to vary. How can I gain a more *reliable* voice? Or am I perceiving a difference where there is none? With tone you have a set standard you can stick to, but voice is harder…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The truth is: you can’t go wrong with voice. Whatever spills out of your pen is your voice. But constructing and maintaining a consistent voice can be a little trickier. Don’t be afraid to play around with different styles, but don’t worry too much about finding *your* voice. Concentrate on creating solid and vibrant prose, and your voice will find itself.

  13. Brigitta M says

    I’m having a bit of trouble in my WiP as it relates to tone, and I was wondering if I could get a bit of advice. I’ve determined that the overall tone for my story should be along the lines of an American Folktale. This lighthearted exaggeration works for most of the story but there are a lot of very dark scenes and for those sections it reads more like traditional horror. Any advice on how to unify these elements to create a cohesive whole?

    • Eric Troyer says

      When I read your post I immediately thought of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” You might read some Washington Irving to see how he dealt with that mix.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Like Eric, Sleepy Hollow was the first thing to pop to my mind as well. In truth, folktales can be extremely dark and creepy, so integrating the darker tone shouldn’t be a problem at all. Just be sure to foreshadow it.

  14. Shelly W. says

    You totally hit the nail on the head with Australia – it’s like watching a string of mini-movies that just happen to have the same characters.


  1. […] Discusses why your story's tone must be consistent in order to create a cohesive and powerful story—and offers some examples of what happens when you fail to do so.  […]

  2. […] Have You Set the Right Tone for Your Story? Is Your Story’s Tone Lying to Readers? […]

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