Get Set: Determining Your Story’s Tone #ReadySetWrite
My name is Tobey Heydon and I am practically seventeen years old, since my sixteenth birthday was five whole months ago. Actually, Tobey is my midle name and my first is Henrietta. My mother got sort of desperate when her third child turned out to be another girl, so she named me for my father. But, thank Heaven, my grandmother’s maiden name was Tobey. Otherwise it would have been too ghastly. People might have called me Henny for short and I would have simply died.
(du Jardin, p. 3)
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
(Green, p. 3)
I like to save things. Not important things like whales or people or the environment. Silly things. Porcelain bells, the kind you get at sourvenir shops. Cookie cutters you’ll never use, because who needs a cookie in the shape of a foot? Ribbons for my hair. Love letters. Of all the things I save, I guess you could say my love letters are my most prized possession.
(Han, p. 1)
I’ve decided to start a blog.
Why, you might ask?
You know when you shake a Coke can and then you open it and it explodes everywhere? Well, that’s how I feel right now. I have so many things I want to say fizzing up inside of me, but I don’t have the confidence to say them out loud.
(Sugg, p. 1)
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
(Collins, p. 3)
Aside from point of view, what’s one thing all of these opening paragraphs have in common?
Yes, they’re all YA books. That’s not it.
No, not all of them have been made into movies.
All of them do a pretty good job of establishing the tone of the book right from the beginning.
Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t read a few of these (Green, Han, and Sugg). But through my extensive research (reading a few reviews on Goodreads) and what I’ve heard about them through word of mouth, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the way each of these books is written follows in the same tone that’s established in these opening lines.
Let’s look a couple of other examples quickly:
Mr. and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
(Rowling, HPSS, p. 1)
As you’ve likely recognized (or guessed) these are the opening lines of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s [Philosopher’s] Stone. Right from the beginning, the tone is set—Rowling doesn’t open with the murder of Harry’s parents or with Sirius “killing” Peter Pettigrew and being hauled off to Azkaban. She doesn’t open with the revelation that Harry has been made to live in the broom cupboard under the stairs for almost his whole life. She doesn’t even open with wizards, but with muggles—the most muggliest muggles ever to live! She throws in a “thank you very much” and “they just didn’t hold with such nonsense” which immediately set the tone of the story—even though this will deal with things that are not “perfectly normal” but “strange or mysterious,” it’s going to be lighthearted.
The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.
(Rowling, HPDH, p. 1)
In the opening lines of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we get no “thank you very much” no “nonsense.” It’s brisk. It’s “moonlit.” It’s immediately tense and full of suspicion. Who are these unnamed men? Why are they meeting in a “narrow, moonlit lane”? Why do they immediately pull their weapons on each other? How do they know each other? We get a sense of impending doom rather than a lighthearted introduction to a new and magical world that we see in the first book.
That’s what it means to set a tone.
Will your story be lighthearted? serious?
Will it be dark and moody or bright and cheery?
Soulful and somber? Or fun and witty?
Cynical and sarcastic? Or witty and irreverent?
Will your viewpoint characters’ POV scenes be different from each other in tone? Do you have a character who is an optimist while the other’s a pessimist? Show this in the tone—in the words you choose and how you string them together. In the length and complexity/simplicity of your sentence structures. How do you want readers to feel as they’re reading your story?
Sometimes, you may think that you know the tone of your story, only to get a few thousand words into the first draft and realize that it isn’t working at all. I tried writing a story in which the heroine had social anxiety disorder but which was still in keeping with the lighthearted tone I use in my contemporary novels. But that character’s viewpoint scenes started getting more and more angsty and insular, taking the tone of the story into a much darker place than I wanted—one that didn’t really work for the lighthearted, hopeful romance novels I write.
So I ended up going back to the “get my characters ready” part of preparing my story and changed her character quite a bit. And she became the Meredith Guidry who now appears in Menu for Romance.
If you aren’t really sure what tone your story needs, let your characters help you decide. Freewrite in your main characters’ viewpoints and then go back and see what their moods are, and what mood you’re in when reading it. From that, you should be able to get a better grasp on, and figure out how to capitalize on, the tone of your story.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1949. Print.
du Jardin, Rosamond. Practically Seventeen. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2008. Print.
Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. New York: Dutton Books/Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012. Print.
Han, Jenny. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. New York: Simon & Schuster/BFYR, 2014. Print.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Inc., 1997. Print.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Inc., 2007. Print.
Sugg, Zoe. Girl Online. New York: Atria Books/Keywords Press, 2014. Print.
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