Today I’d like to share an excerpt from Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises, which helps beginning to intermediate storytellers develop fiction writing skills. This exercise is from chapter sixty, and it’s called “Tone and Mood.” Enjoy!
Tone and Mood
Tone and mood give a story a sense of atmosphere—how a story feels—its emotional sensibility.
Atmosphere is often established through a story’s setting: An old abandoned Victorian mansion beneath a full moon on a windy night can elicit a dark and creepy atmosphere. However, tone and mood can also come from the characters. A clumsy, awkward character can evoke a humorous tone for a story. And events can shape a story’s tone and mood; consider the difference in tone between a story about a star athlete making it to the big leagues versus a story about the effects of war on a combat veteran.
Tone and mood may also be driven by a story’s genre. For example, the identifying feature of horror is that it’s scary. Romance is romantic. Any genre can be infused with comedy, although there is little humor in a tragedy. An adventure story can be lighthearted or terrifying; a science-fiction story can be thrilling or cerebral; a mystery can be grim or gritty, or both.
One author might use a consistent tone throughout all of their works. Another might use different tones for different projects. And some authors use multiple tones in a single story: A suspenseful scene can follow a funny scene, or a tense scene can follow a sad scene. The tone can even change within a scene: A light or casual moment can turn grave in an instant. A changing tone affects the rhythm of a story, giving it emotional and atmospheric cadence.
Sometimes tone and mood develop naturally from the story’s characters, plot, and setting. Other times, tone and mood might be unclear, and it’s up to us, as authors, to establish a story’s emotional atmosphere.
Create a simple outline of about five chapters from a novel you’ve read, and then write a couple of sentences describing the tone throughout these chapters. Then scan through the text, and mark any changes in tone. When you’re done, review the story’s structure through the lens of tone. What is the overall tone? Can you detect a pattern? How do the tone and mood change as the story builds up to its climax, or do they remain static?
Choose two descriptive words for how your story will feel—its tone and mood. Here are a few examples: lighthearted and adventurous, dark and humorous, or mysterious and contemplative. Create a quick sketch for a story, including at least three characters, a setting, and a one-paragraph summary of the plot. Be sure to include details about how the tone and mood will be established. For example, a dark and humorous story might be set in a mortuary with a fumbling, silly protagonist.
What effect does tone have on readers? Can tone and mood be used to strengthen a story’s characters, plot, or theme? What are some ways authors can communicate a story’s tone and mood throughout the narrative? How is tone related to genre, or are they related? What happens when the tone and genre are contrasted (humor within a horror story)? Do you prefer stories with a consistent tone and mood throughout, or do you prefer a story that takes you on an emotional ride, moving through a range of tones and moods?