What does it mean when people say your story's “tone” is wrong?

Writers and creative people talk about tone all the time. But what does it mean? Is it just the difference between a comedy and a drama? Is it just light versus dark? When you write a story, how do you figure out your "tone," and keep it from lurching from one thing to another? Here are some ideas.

Seriously, I feel as though I hear the term "tone" used all the time, and it actually seems to mean about 10 different things. Hollywood people use the adjective "tonal" a lot — like when I was at the press event for Pacific Rim, Legendary Pictures head Thomas Tull told us that his upcoming film Godzilla is "tonally" very different than Pacific Rim. Did he mean that one is funnier than the other, or darker? More grown up? More action-oriented?

Oftentimes, we hear people discuss the "tone" of a movie or book, and we sort of know what they mean — without necessarily being able to articulate it in detail. You'll hear critics call out particular works for having jarring shifts in tone — most recently the Lone Ranger movie — as though your tone should be the same throughout. But what is all of this fuss about?

What is tone?

After thinking about it a whole bunch, I've decided that "tone" is a term that refers to a lot of different stuff. The "tone" of a work sets up the audience's expectations of what sort of things are likely to happen next, partly because it establishes the parameters of the story, and reminds us of stuff we've seen before. It's also a function of "style," because a lot of a creator's style goes into establishing a particular tone. It's also related to "voice" — the voice of the narrator in a prose work does a lot to set the tone.

What does it mean when people say your story's “tone” is wrong?

Stephen King probably never has to stop and think, "What sort of tone am I going for in this story?" Because he's spent years developing his own personal writing style, and there's a particular tone that goes with that.

But "tone" can be more complicated than just "funny" versus "not funny," or "more childish" versus "grown-up."

Think about Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut, two writers who were frequently compared in the 1980s. When you just think about their work without having it in front of you, you might think they're very similar writers. It's only when you look at a page of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy side-by-side with a page from Breakfast of Champions that you realize how different the two of them actually are:

What does it mean when people say your story's “tone” is wrong?

They're both doing oddball, absurdist, nihilistic, sprawling narratives, but you'd never mistake one for the other. It's not just that Adams is a good deal funnier than Vonnegut, but that Adams' voice is a good deal warmer and more wry than Vonnegut's. There are more barbs in Vonnegut's irony, and you can see the icepick he's preparing to plunge into your brain.

You could describe Vonnegut's tone as "darker" than Adams', but you could also say that his tone sets up a somewhat different sort of story than Adams'. Perhaps a colder one, since Vonnegut seems less concerned with making us sympathize with Kilgore Trout than Adams does with Arthur Dent.

So maybe "tone" is like the difference between these two authors, who are doing sort of similar things in very different ways.

The relationship between tone and genre

If your tone sets the audience's expectations for the sort of things that will be happening, or how they'll happen, then maybe it's also a function of genre. People know what sort of things are likely to happen in a paranormal romance, versus the sort of events they expect from a gritty noir urban fantasy.

What does it mean when people say your story's “tone” is wrong?

And indeed, a lot of genres have a particular tone associated with them. An epic fantasy is partly epic because of the tone of the writing — and the sense that you hear, from the very first page, the thundering hooves of the approaching armies and maybe the massive wingbeats of dragons. A literary post-apocalypse novel will, of necessity, have a grim, bleak tone from the get-go. Your "office temp goes to work for faeries" book will probably be pretty goofy, with lots of short choppy sentences to convey that "OMG Oberon is a mean boss!"

And that's one reason why people often recommend reading a ton of stuff in the (sub)genre you want to write in — not just so you can be familiar with what's been done before, but so you can nail the tone.

At the same time, of course, if you're actually reasonably deft, you can play around with reader/audience expectations, giving them a zany Sex and the City-style urban fantasy that turns unexpectedly dark or weird, or a post-apocalyptic novel that's actually kind of jaunty. In fact, probably one of the main things that sets apart great works in a particular genre from merely adequate ones is how much they manage to surprise your instead of being a slave to your expectations.

But yeah, if you're writing or creating in a particular genre, there's probably a "tone" that goes along with it — and if you aim to be the next George R.R. Martin, you should study how Martin establishes tone in his work.

Do you actually have to worry about your tone?

What does it mean when people say your story's “tone” is wrong?

Maybe. Part of why so many experts say you have to write a million words of fiction before you're ready for the big leagues is because it takes a long time to establish your style. And once you've got your style nailed down, then you may well be in the same boat as Stephen King in one respect, anyway: you'll have a consistent tone that goes with the style you're doing.

On the other hand, a lot of the time when people complain about your work, part of what they're complaining about is tone. If they say they "couldn't get into it," or it was "too slow," or they "didn't like the characters," then that may well be a tone issue.

You may not be establishing a tone that resonates with people — or maybe your tone sort of sucks. Maybe your tone is all over the place, or you're lurching from "not quite funny enough" to "dark and forboding" in the same paragraph. Maybe your rhythm is just off, and you're not giving the reader or viewer enough to latch onto.

Are tonal shifts always a problem?

Only if you believe that a story should never surprise people. Some of my favorite creators are the ones who can go from screamingly funny to achingly sad, or scary to happy, on a dime. Joss Whedon is probably the master of tonal shifts, in TV and movies — the fact that Dr. Horrible goes from silly to tragic on a dime is pretty amazing, and yet it works.

What does it mean when people say your story's “tone” is wrong?

One of the greatest things you can accomplish as a writer or artist is to pull the rug out of from under people — preferably without having people issue death threats or chase after you with meat cleavers. Some of my favorite moments, in any media, are the ones that go from funny to sad, or sad to funny.

It's worth mentioning that there's no such thing as "tone" in real life — you can be in the middle of a romantic comedy and then be hit by a bus, and it's not a "tonal shift," it's just a manifestation of the fact that we live in a random and horrible world where shit happens.

Obviously, art isn't reality, and your goal as an artist shouldn't necessarily be to reflect the real world — that's one worthy goal, just not the only goal. But being able to go from one tone to another is probably one of the attributes of a real master. My favorite bit of John Scalzi's Redshirts is how this silly meta novel turns sad and wistful in the codas, for example. George R.R. Martin is amazing at going from hilarious to bleak to sick to stirring and optimistic — people talk about him being a "dark" writer, but he actually does this chiaroscuro shit really well.

In fact, if your tone is too consistent, then you're probably a one-note writer, which is probably not to be desired.

So how do you manage your tone?

To some extent, see above — it's about developing your own style as a writer, and finding a color palette that works for you, to use a painting metaphor.

What does it mean when people say your story's “tone” is wrong?

But to the extent that there's a magic bullet for tone, it's this: Think of your story as a piece of music. When I get stuck on trying to figure out what sort of tone I'm establishing in a particular section, and how fast and how wild things should be, I try to think of it as a piece of music that I'm writing in my head, which I'm hoping you'll play in your head. Unlike sheet music, which everybody tries to play more or less the same way, each reader will "hear" the story in his or head differently — but if you're good at what you're doing, you can still create a particular feel with rhythm, tempo, key, and so on.

There are a million decisions that go into this stuff — when you're starting a short story or a chapter in a novel, do you start by dropping the reader into the action? Do you write five long paragraphs of scene-setting, and try to create a wistful, slow, introspective mood? Do you start with two people arguing, or with a funny digression? Ditto for stuff like the length of scenes, the ratio of description to dialogue, the pacing of the action, the amount of foreshadowing versus quips, etc.

And for various reasons, thinking of this in terms of music is really helpful — is this "piece" starting with a long orchestral section? Is the singer coming in right in the first bar? Is it minor or major key? Fast or slow? Jazz or bluegrass? In particular, this can be helpful when you think about "tonal shifts" — music is great at changing key and style, but you absolutely know when a piece of music has gone out of rhythm or changed key in a way that feels jolting rather than awesome. The transitions between one piece of music and another can be sudden or gradual, but they hopefully always feel deliberate.

I've actually gotten feedback from editors that was phrased in terms of music — like, one time, an editor told me, and I quote, "I feel like it's missing a final paragraph, like a catchy tune that ends on the subdominant instead of the dominant." And I knew exactly what he meant, and wrote a final paragraph that kind of took the reader out of the story more gently.

Music can convey a mood really effectively, in a way that prose fiction often strives to emulate. When I was interviewing Bear McCreary, he talked about the fact that — for example — the Simpsons theme plays with the same intervals as the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme, but does it in a way that sounds zany and deliberately "wrong." A piece of music can sound stirring and heroic, or comical and wacky — and it can go from one to the other, with a deft switch in tone.

So even though you don't necessarily have to think about tone — especially when you're writing a first draft of something — it's something to think about when you're doing rewrites and trying to think about what works and what doesn't work. You're trying to draw your reader into a particular mood, and if the reader isn't getting into it or feels like it's all over the map, then it's probably a good time to think about whether you're in control of your tone.

Images via Greg M, Kaastor Magazine, excitingsounds, kocojim, Hang Fire Books on Flickr.