Storytelling guide

Tone in writing can make or break your story – learn how to nail it

Tone in writing is like the seasoning in cooking. It adds flavor, evokes emotions, and sets the stage for what’s to come. Whether you’re writing a book, a screenplay, a comic, a song, or even a poem, the tone you choose can either captivate your audience or leave them disinterested. Above all, this post aims to guide budding storytellers on how to grasp and master the tone to enhance their narratives.

1. The Magic of Tone

Tone, the emotional or mood setting umbrella of a narrative, holds a magical key to the hearts and minds of the audience. It’s the silent music in the background of a scene that softly drives the narrative, evoking a spectrum of feelings, from hope and joy to fear and despair. Therefore it is integral in how we, the audience, perceive and engage with the story. Let’s delve into some real-life examples across various mediums to grasp the magic of tone:

  • Books: In Harper Lee’s iconic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”, a sincere and contemplative tone pervades the narrative. Through Scout’s innocent eyes, we traverse the realms of racial injustice, moral growth, and compassion. This tone subtly urges readers to reflect on the social issues mirrored in the narrative, fostering a deep empathy for the characters’ struggles against injustice.
  • Movies: The film “The Dark Knight” navigates through a dark, intense, yet hopeful tone. Despite the grim circumstances, there’s a sliver of hope portrayed through Batman’s relentless fight against chaos. This tone keeps audiences on the edge of their seats, engrossed in the thin line between heroism and anarchy.
  • Comics: The whimsical and adventurous tone of “Alice in Wonderland” invites readers into a realm of endless possibilities. The tone sets a fantastical backdrop against which Alice’s curious nature unfolds, leading readers along a path of whimsy and wonder.
  • Songs: In Adele’s song “Someone Like You”, a melancholic yet accepting tone resonates through the lyrics and melody, stirring feelings of loss and longing, yet also a sense of closure.
  • Poetry: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” envelops readers in a mysterious, eerie tone, enhancing the haunting presence of the raven and the torment of love lost.

1.1. Tone in writing exercise

Now let’s translate this understanding into a simple exercise. Try rewriting the sentence “The sun set behind the hills.” in three different tones: hopeful, gloomy, and mysterious.

  • Hopeful: “As the sun set behind the hills, the sky burst into shades of gold and pink, promising a new day full of possibilities.”
  • Gloomy: “The sun dipped behind the hills, leaving a cold grey dusk in its wake, as if hope too had deserted the land.”
  • Mysterious: “As the sun set behind the hills, shadows danced across the valley, hinting at secrets awaiting the veil of night to unveil.”

Observing how the same scenario can evoke different emotions based on the tone is a stepping stone in understanding its magic. In other words, each tone sets a unique stage for storytelling, guiding the narrative in a direction that resonates with the intended message and audience.

2. Identifying the Right Tone for Your Story

Choosing the right tone depends on several factors:

  • Genre: A mystery novel may have a suspenseful tone, while a romance novel may have a warm, affectionate tone.
  • Target Audience: Younger audiences might enjoy a playful, adventurous tone, whereas older audiences might appreciate a more serious or reflective tone.
  • Message/Theme: What message do you want to convey? Your tone should align with your theme.

3. Techniques to Establish Tone

Mastering the tone in your narrative involves a blend of various elements that work in harmony to evoke the intended emotions in your audience. So here are some enriched techniques to help establish the desired tone, accompanied by examples from various storytelling mediums:

3.1. Word Choice:

  • The words you choose are the paint with which you color the canvas of your narrative.
  • For instance, describing a setting as “gloomy” versus “mysterious” can steer the tone toward melancholy or intrigue respectively.
  • Example from Poetry: In Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” words like “deep,” “dark,” and “sleep” evoke a tranquil yet somber tone.

3.2. Sentence Structure:

  • The rhythm of your sentences can significantly impact the tone.
  • Short, choppy sentences can create a sense of urgency or tension, while long, flowing sentences often evoke a peaceful, contemplative tone.
  • Example from Books: In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea,” the concise sentences contribute to the stark, realistic tone of the narrative.

3.3. Setting, Characters, and Dialogue:

  • These core elements should mirror the tone you aim to convey.
  • The dark, rainy streets of Gotham in Batman comics enhance the grim, serious tone, while the characters and their dialogues maintain this tone consistently.

3.4. Imagery and Symbolism:

  • Vivid imagery and meaningful symbolism can deepen the tone.
  • Example from Movies: In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the imagery of rain in Andy’s escape scene symbolizes cleansing and rebirth, aligning with the hopeful tone of freedom.

3.5. Music and Sound (for screenplays and songs):

  • The score and sound effects in a screenplay or the melody in a song play a pivotal role in setting the tone.
  • Example: The upbeat tempo and major key in Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” instantly set an energetic, joyful tone, for instance.

3.6. Good practices during the writing process

  1. Creating a Mood Board:
    • A mood board is a visual tool that can help encapsulate the tone you aim to achieve.
    • Collect images, words, quotes, and even snippets of other stories that resonate with the tone of your narrative. This board can serve as a reference and inspiration as you write.
  2. Reading and Analyzing:
    • Reading widely and analyzing the tone in other works can provide insight and inspiration
    • Note how different tones are achieved and how they affect your experience as a reader or viewer.
  3. Feedback:
    • Share your work with others and ask for feedback on the tone.
    • Different perspectives can offer valuable insights into how well the tone is being conveyed.

By nurturing a keen understanding and adept application of these techniques, you inch closer to mastering the tone in your narrative, enriching the storytelling experience for both you and your audience. In other words, each element, from word choice to imagery, weaves together to form the unique fabric of tone that envelops your narrative, guiding your audience through the emotional landscape of your story.

4. Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Inconsistent Tone: Stick to a consistent tone to avoid confusing your readers.
  • Forced Tone: Don’t force a tone that doesn’t fit the narrative.
  • Too Subtle or Too Overt: Find a balance to ensure your tone effectively conveys the story’s mood.

5. Practicing Tone Through Exercises

The journey to mastering tone is paved with practice. Therefore engaging in writing exercises allows you to explore different tones and understand their impact on narrative. Here are some exercises and activities to sharpen your understanding and application of tone:

  1. Rewrite a Scene: Take a scene from your favorite book, movie, or song, and rewrite it in three different tones. Notice how each tone alters the essence of the scene.
  2. Daily Tone Journal: Write a short paragraph each day, describing a mundane event in an exaggerated tone, like horrific, ecstatic, or whimsical.
  3. Tone Conversion: Write a short story, then rewrite it in a different tone. Compare the two and analyze the differences.
  4. Photo Prompt: Select a photo and write a short narrative describing it, aiming for a specific tone. Share it with others to see if they picked up on the intended tone.
  5. Dialogue Tone: Write a dialogue between two characters in a neutral tone, then rewrite it in two different tones such as sarcastic and melancholy.
  6. Music Prompt: Listen to a piece of instrumental music and write a short narrative that embodies the tone of the music.
  7. Tone Challenge: Write a one-page story for a given tone. Join a writing group and exchange stories, providing feedback on how well the tone was conveyed.
  8. Mood Board: Create a mood board for a specific tone, then write a narrative inspired by it.
  9. Tone Analysis: Select a passage from a book, analyze the tone, and identify the elements contributing to it. Try to emulate this tone in your own writing.
  10. Tone Swap: Partner with another writer. Exchange stories and rewrite each other’s work in a new tone.

Joining writing groups or online forums can provide constructive feedback on your tone, helping you refine your skills. Engaging with a community also exposes you to a variety of tones used by other writers, broadening your understanding and appreciation of tone in writing.

6. Examples

Analyzing the tone in different excerpts from popular stories can provide a clearer understanding of how tone influences narrative. Here are three examples:

  1. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
    • Tone: Nostalgic, Reflective.
    • Analysis: The tone captures the unattainable allure of the past and the relentless pursuit of the American Dream. Words like “green light” and “orgastic” evoke a sense of longing and unfulfilled desires.
  2. “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins:
    • Tone: Grim, Tense.
    • Analysis: The stark tone sets the stage for the ruthless competition, reflecting the oppressive society in which the characters live. Short, terse sentences contribute to the tension, mirroring the life-or-death stakes.
  3. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling:
    • Tone: Whimsical, Adventurous.
    • Analysis: The whimsical tone fosters a sense of wonder and excitement, drawing readers into a magical world full of possibility. The playful descriptions of magical elements create a light, fantastical atmosphere.

Moreover, by studying these examples and identifying the elements that contribute to the tone, you can gain insights into how to effectively employ tone in your own narrative to enrich the storytelling experience.


Mastering the tone in writing is a journey. So as you experiment with tone and receive feedback, you’ll find what works best for your story. Your journey in tone can lead to crafting unforgettable narratives that resonate with your audience.

Lastly, I invite you to share your experiences or examples of mastering tone in the comments section below.